Friday, August 18, 2017

My Message to New Students: "I hope you'll fail often here."

Fake news? No. Those were my exact words this morning during new student orientation. But listen, please, for the context of my remarks. 

I recently observed an endearing moment while on a walk in my neighborhood:  A young boy, perhaps 5 years old, was learning to ride a bike, with his mom and dad helping him. The boy would sit on the bike, with anticipation and a little fear in his face, and his father would gently push him forward and let go. Within seconds, the front wheels would begin to wobble, and the boy would crash. But he would hop up, run the bike back to his father and say,  ‘Again, Daddy.’ The father gently pushed, the bike would wobble, then, wobble some more, and crash.  ‘Again Daddy.’ I watched this happen at least five times as I walked passed this young family, and when I rounded the block ten minutes later, they were still at it. But then a break-through moment occurred: For 20 glorious seconds, he rode the bike without crashing, shouting with electric joy, ‘I’m doing it! I’m doing it!’ as his parents cheered and clapped for him. 

This was a wonderful moment in a young boy’s life. But what was fascinating to me was the boy’s relentless desire to succeed, even though he kept crashing. Some where along the way as we grow up, we stop taking risks. We “play it safe” for fear of failure.  We don’t want to be laughed at, we don’t want to be ostracized for being wrong, we are fearful of rejection. 

I hope St. Michael will be a place that’s the opposite of that—where you will have the courage to risk failure. I hope you’ll try out for a team, even if you get cut or don’t play much. I hope you’ll run for student government, even if you’re not elected. I hope you’ll ask a girl out, even if she says no, or that if you’re a girl, you’ll say yes, even if “he’s not your type.” I hope you’ll volunteer an answer in class, even if it’s wrong. Ladies, studies show that beginning in middle school, you too often take a back seat to the boys in class, unwilling to challenge their ideas or declare your independent thoughts. I hope you’ll do the opposite at St. Michael—that you’ll speak out, even if it means you’ll have to tell a boy he’s wrong.

I want you to fail often because that means you’re trying new things, taking risks, exploring new possibilities often. The electric joy we feel, like this boy learning to ride a bike for the first time, comes in achieving things we work hard for.  It’s what makes life such a fantastic adventure!

As you begin your time at St. Michael, pray that God will give you the courage to try new things. Pray that he will give you the courage to fail!  

Thursday, August 03, 2017

What We Believe: Founding Principles of Catholic High Schools

August marks the beginning of a new school year, and it's also a time we think about first principles. Here's my take on the foundational principles of a Catholic high, excerpted from our faculty handbook at St. Michael Catholic High School:

Students are “children of God” and “temples of the Holy Spirit,” which should fill us with optimism in who they are and what they are capable of achieving. Our culture is extraordinarily pessimistic about youth, telling them they're incapable of virtue ("safe sex"), incapable of scholarship (inflated grades) or handling the idea that some are more athletically talented (so everyone gets a trophy). And the worst part about this messaging is they begin to believe these things about themselves. We must be the opposite, challenging students to yearn for more. Our aim is to form great hearts and minds so that students will do great things for others! As such, we should ask our students to “stretch,” even while providing the practical and emotional support to do so. 

Our faith is the lens through which all else is focused. The “Catholic” emphasis of the school is much more than religion classes. Rather, faith is the unifying principle that brings synthesis to the fragments of a busy teenager’s life, giving it purpose, direction and meaning. We will have weekly Mass on Wednesdays, an explicit witness to our school’s self-identity.  But if we build the culture here correctly, the Catholic ethos of the school will be so implicit, so natural, that in many ways it will often be un-noticed by our faculty and staff, almost like the oxygen we breath each day. Even so, where appropriate, we should be willing to make explicit what may often be felt implicitly.

Parents are the primary educators. Our job, as teachers, is to assist parents in their primary role. To do so, we must communicate well with each other, both in formal and informal settings, and in both directions. We should work very hard to develop a sense of “we” with parents and learn their first names—not simply “Johnny’s father.”  We should trust parents, and ask them to trust us. In an increasingly divided, distrustful society, this takes work on both sides!

We believe in a “Renaissance vision” of the human person and believe that teenagers thrive when they are asked to develop all facets of their personality—spiritual, academic, athletic, and artistic.  Accordingly, we are a “both-and” school, committed to building a culture that discourages students from becoming “specialists”: scholars, but not musicians, musicians, but not athletes, etc. High school should be a time when many doors are opened for students and they are invited to walk through those doors and experience new things. The time for choosing a profession and shutting doors is later. We want scholar-athletes! Scholar-musicians! Warrior poets! Scholar saints! We must flexible with each other as teachers, coaches and music directors to minimize their conflicting commitments so as to promote this vision! 

Order is essential for a school, and rules and lines of authority are essential. However, our normal day to day interactions with students and with each other should be human ones, governed by relationships. For sure, where those relationships are not respected, rules and authority should be invoked to insist on order. But these are exceptions, not the principal way we interrelate with each other. 

“Order” does not equal “uniformity.” Within the broad outlines of our policies and procedures, teenagers need breathing room, and we should allow room when we can.  The saying attributed to Augustine is appropriate: “In essential matters, unity. In non-essential matters, liberty. In all things, charity.” We want to build a school where students are treated as individuals, not as part of a template, and where they can find their unique “voice”, even while they also learn to accept their responsibilities and obligations as part of a community. 

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Bishop David Choby, Pastor

I was nervous when I first met him. It was the spring of 2008, the last leg in the hiring process to become headmaster of Pope John Paul II High School in Nashville.  I was pretty sure my Iphone had given me bad GPS directions, as it landed me in a neighborhood somewhere in Hendersonville, TN, eighteen miles north of the Chancery.  I came to a cul-de-sac, and I sat there in my car, staring at a two story home, uncertain. I decided to ring the doorbell. An older man answered the door, wearing casual clothes. I remember stammering. “I am probably in the wrong place.” “Probably not,” he said with a smile. “Are you  Faustin?” “Yes, are you Bishop Choby?” “I am”, he said warmly. “Welcome to my home. Want some coffee?”

The interview was nothing like I expected. He never asked me about my philosophy of Catholic education, how I intended to run the school, the kind of teachers I might hire. Instead, he wanted to know about my wife and kids. He asked me what would make the move from Montgomery, Al difficult, and I told him that my wife’s parents, who lived there, were sick. He was very interested in them (and I remember three months later, when he first met my wife, he immediately asked her how they were doing.) I did most of the talking.  At the end of our meeting, he stood up, gave me his cell phone number and said, “If you need anything, call me. Welcome to Nashville.”

Whatever anxiety I had about leaving my previous school of 23 years and moving to Nashville vanished that morning.

Because he was so accessible, and because he moved to a house literally in front of the high school, I came to know Bishop Choby well during my seven year tenure as headmaster of the school. He was a guy’s guy--he never liked talking about his physical health which had begun to fail him--and he’d quickly dismiss any concern directed to that end. He was a true southern gentleman, raised in Nashville, which meant he spoke VERY slowly, but that belied an agile mind, and he was careful with what he said and didn’t say, cognizant that he was bishop. He saw humor in things, and with a twinkle in his eye and a modest smile, could tell an excellent story. Even so, though he was always the most important person in the room, you got the sense he didn’t think that way about himself, evidencing a true Christian humility, listening well to what others had to say, and in so doing, challenging through his example those of us who (like me) talk too much.

When my wife’s father died in 2010,  Bishop Choby called me on my cell phone and asked if he could talk to her. He told her he was sorry for her loss, and consoled her, saying he’d pray for her and her family.  I remember her family was stunned when she told them that was the Bishop of Nashville she was just on the phone with,  and that he was praying for them. He did the same thing when her mother died in 2011, and then again with me, when my father passed in 2014. Perhaps for those who have grown accustomed to his leadership as bishop, these kind of outreaches do not seem as remarkable as they truly are, but such was his “style” and the constancy of his pastoral care.

He rarely substituted his judgment for those whom he hired in Church ministry, allowing the various ministries within the diocese to run as their leadership saw fit.  He trusted Therese Williams, my boss as superintendent of Catholic schools, Bill Whelan, the CFO of the archdiocese, and perhaps most of all, his pastors at the local parishes.  He trusted me as headmaster, and my colleagues at Father Ryan, Jim McIntyre and Paul Davis. Allowing the diocese to be run as independent institutions occasionally led to messiness and some inefficiencies, but I think he made the deliberate choice to live with some of that because he honored the principle of subsidiarity and had faith in his people. I certainly felt his faith in me as leader of Pope John Paul II High School and reveled in the freedom he gave us to create a unique, interesting, and in the end, excellent Catholic school.

We are tempted today to measure leadership purely by the number of programs someone starts, or by efficiency measures, or by quantifiable results. Bishop Choby was not that kind of a leader, and though he never said so to me directly, I am pretty sure he abhorred any notion of a “business template” as a measure of Church ministry. Instead, he was first and foremost a priest and a pastor, which meant he cared about people and relationships before anything else, and gave himself to others, one person at a time.

The diocese of Nashville lost a good bishop and a really good man on June 3. But I suspect many would say, as I do, that they lost a very good friend as well. May God reward him generously for a life well lived.

Monday, May 29, 2017

"The Zeal to Spread the Sacred Fire"

Note: These are my reflections as part of our faculty prayer upon the completion of our first year as a high school.  

This is a portrait of Michael Portier, the first bishop of Mobile.  He is one of the three reasons Archbishop Rodi chose the name “Michael” in the creation of St. Michael Catholic High School. I am guessing the picture reflects Portier in his later years, as he is a bit heavier than was probable given the demands of his early life as bishop. 

He was born in 1795 in France, and came to the United States to become a priest in 1817. He was ordained at the age of 25, made “Vicar Apostolic” of Florida and Alabama at 32, and named bishop of Alabama and Florida at the age of 34. Our diocese began with him as our first bishop in 1829. To put that in perspective, Florida and Alabama are now 9 different dioceses. In the beginning he was the only priest of the entire 2 state area, and had three primary Catholic communities to care for in Mobile, Pensacola and St. Augustine. 

By the telling of Oscar H. Lipscomb, then Ph.D. candidate in history and later himself the archbishop of Mobile,  early travel back and forth between the three towns was quite difficult. The trip to St. Augustine required both sailing and hiking, a two week journey from Mobile. Mosquitos were a constant nemesis—Lipscomb recounts a letter in which Portier complains that “one could scarcely open one’s mouth without swallowing them” — and when he slept on the trail he had to wrap himself so tightly that only his nose protruded from his clothing, making it dreadfully uncomfortable with the heat and humidity, prompting Portier to write “the heat was bothersome, but of the two evils, one must choose the lesser.”  He relied heavily on the hospitality of non-Catholics during these trips, often lodging in their homes on the trail. Long before the anti-Catholicism of the Know-Nothings and the KKK in the middle 1800’s, Portier was of an ecumenical mindset: "Respecting sincerity of belief wherever he found it,” Lipscomb writes,  “he did not hesitate to praise the outstanding qualities that faiths other than his own engendered in his hardy hosts.”  (The Administration of Michael Portier, Oscar H. Lipscomb, 1963)

Early during his tenure, Portier went back to France to recruit priests to help him in his work, and brought back five, the most famous of whom was Fr. Loras, whom Portier appointed as the first president of Spring Hill College in 1830 and who later became bishop of Dubuque, Iowa.  Times were tough --there was very little money.  Yellow fever epidemics were common. In fact, the site for Spring Hill College was chosen because of its elevation, in hope to avoid the mosquito driven sicknesses so common in marshy, coastal waters. Bishop Portier worked hard. When he started Spring Hill College, a newspaper reported that “the good bishop, with axe in hand, was always in the lead”. 

He was blessed with good health during most of his ministry.  When he was made bishop, 
reflecting on his unworthiness to be called “successor to the apostles,” he  quipped that his “health was his only apostolic quality.” He lived simply in a two room wooden house in Mobile, and the first “cathedral” was a small church that was 20 feet wide and 50 feet deep. But through his faith, hard work and the blessings of grace, the Church in this area slowly grew, and in 1837 he commissioned the building a new Cathedral, which was finished in 1850 and named “Basilica of the Immaculate Conception.” That basic Cathedral, with some improvements, still exists today.  Bishop Portier lived until he was 63, dying in 1859. He was bishop of Mobile for thirty years, 1829-1859.

As the first principal of the high school named in his honor, I was particularly moved by his pledge to God during his ordination. Prostrate on the floor as part of the ceremony, Portier recounts that “I made a promise to God of strict fidelity, of devotion to his glory until death, and of constant zeal to spread everywhere the sacred fire. “

The notion of our faith as a “sacred fire,” I think, is a very compelling one. In Scripture, fire has always been an indication of God’s mighty, intimate presence—the burning bush of Moses, the pillar of fire that led the Israelites through the Red Sea, the tongues of fire that came upon the apostles at Pentecost. And I think it’s a very good image for us, too, in understanding the work we are doing at St. Michael. We are continuing the work of Bishop Poitier, continuing the work of the apostles and our Church, spreading the sacred fire. We are making God present and active in the life of our students and our families. 

So let FIRE be our focus of this morning's prayer service—that this fire, first of all, burns deeply in us, so that we may share this fire authentically and zealously with our students. May God continue to bless St. Michael Catholic High School as we begin deliberations for our second year. And may it --may He through us--ignite a wildfire throughout all of Baldwin County! 

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

An Extraordinary Year

Starting St. Michael Catholic High School with the Catholic community of Baldwin County has been one of the great privileges of my life. I've had occasion to reflect on who we are together in the various talks I've given as we wind down our inaugural year. Here are a few excerpts:

It’s especially poignant to remind ourselves, on this occasion, that we are deeply indebted to those who have gone before us. We are partly who our parents are, who are partly who their parents are, as each generation passes its legacy to the next generation. But what a joy, what a privilege it is, to be on both the giving and receiving end of this! My wife and I are new grandparents. Our two oldest children each have a daughter—one 20 months, and the other 16 months—and for the first time, we understand the beauty of the prayer “May you live to see your children’s children!” (Psalm 128). Diane and I consider both little girls one of God’s greatest blessings to us! (Grandparents’ Breakfast, May 15, 2017).


Like everything else we’ve done this year, we’ve not been able to fall back on a template of “what we’ve always done” to create our awards ceremony this morning. That’s both a liberating, good thing, because it frees us to be creative--but it’s also a very challenging thing—and I would even argue a dangerous thing— if we’re careless. It’s in our rituals that we create who we are. Regardless of what we SAY about ourselves, if we are not thoughtful about what we honor, we may end up communicating something very different.

Our mission for St. Michael, created by our advisory council and approved by the Archbishop in the fall, is elegant in its simplicity:

“St. Michael Catholic High School, a college preparatory school of the Archdiocese of Mobile, aspires for its students to become scholars, leaders and disciples of Jesus Christ. “

“Scholars, leaders and disciples of Jesus Christ.” That’s what we want every student to become, and those are the three traits in our students we wish to honor this morning
 (from our Awards Ceremony, May 17, 2016).

It often takes several generations to clearly understand the impact our ancestors still have on our families. My grandfather was a university professor, as was my father. I am a high school principal, and my son is an assistant principal of an elementary school. We are four generations of educators. Dr. Blanchard, to whom we dedicate our biology lab, was a medical doctor. It will be interesting to see if his granddaughter Cameron follows in his footsteps—she clearly has the genes and the work ethic to become one if she chooses. But even if she chooses otherwise, she is blessed and indebted, as we are all blessed and indebted, for what she has received. (Upon dedication of our biology lab, May 15, 2017)

One peculiarity of America today is we're always looking ahead, trying to solve the next problem. We rarely look backwards and appreciate how far we’ve come. I want you to go back to the very first day of St. Michael Catholic High School, August 17, 2016. Freshman, you walked into high school for the first time, not knowing what to expect, a little fearful, a little stressed. It wasn’t just the building that was brand new—you were, too! But you’re different now. You know what you’re capable of, know what your weaknesses are, you are now more comfortable in your own skin. In just two weeks, there will be a new freshman class, and you’ll no longer be the youngest here. Sophomores, you had an idea of what high school was like, but worried whether St. Michael would be a “real” high school, fearing it would be some lame imitation. But you’ve changed, too. This is now your home. And with your new driver’s license, the world is opening up to you, and college doesn’t feel like such a remote, distant idea. This is an exciting time in your life!

My prayer for all of you this summer is that you will be safe. But it’s much deeper than that. There are only two things that really matter: Your relationships with each other and your relationship with God. I pray that both relationships will grow deeper and fuller—therein lies your true happiness.

This will be my last “talk” with you this year. Thanks for the amazing year it’s been—you guys are truly the co-founders of the school, our first students. Let’s come back next year and build on what we’ve started! May God bless you!
(Last student assembly talk, May 15, 2017)

Monday, April 24, 2017

We Need a Few More Optimists

Like you, I did a lot of traveling over Easter break.

They call it “rubbernecking.” That’s what we instinctually do when we’re driving in a car and pass by an accident. We strain our necks trying to peer out and catch sight of the victims of the crash.

I think we see many analogous versions of rubbernecking all around us. What is the attraction of so many of the “reality shows” that are on TV today? Why does the Jerry Springer show get good ratings? I went on line to see the story line of some recent Springer episodes: “Lipstick Lesbians,” “I Slept with your Brother’s Boyfriend,” “Your Husband Knocked Me Up,” and “Out of Control Catfights.” Why do we watch these shows? Why do we care about the lives of pathetic people living wrecked lives? Psychologists say it’s partly because we enjoy feeling superior to others. When we watch “humilitainment,” as one person called it, we feel better about ourselves at the expense of someone else.

The problem is when there’s a car accident, and when drivers-by rubberneck, the police will tell you that there are often more wrecks, as people aren’t paying attention to where they are driving.

And there’s a parable in there somewhere, I think. When we become fascinated by the misery of others, when we focus on what is wrong about someone else’s life, it’s easy to lose sight of where we are going. And when we are swamped by the wreckage of other people’s lives, when we become accustomed to what is twisted and sad, it’s too easy for us to define deviancy down, too easy to set low bars for ourselves about what is right and good.

In contrast, Scripture tells us that “ whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. (Phillipians 4:8)

I will be honest with you. I find that verse challenging. I have a tendency to go right to the negative. My kids will tell you if we’re watching TV, I often make cutting remarks about people, disputing the claims they’re making, ridiculing their motives. I need-all of us, I think, need—to be in the presence of optimists, people that see the good in others despite their flaws, people who help us focus on what is beautiful and not what is ugly.

Our world needs a few more optimists. I think that’s true of high schools, too, especially at this time of year as we become stressed about A.P exams, final exams, failing, or making a team. When we’re too busy or tired, it’s easy to become cranky, self-centered, mean-spirited, ugly with each other. Let’s work to be the opposite. Let’s go out of way to compliment, to thank, to congratulate, to become people that dwell on what's honorable, pure or excellent in others.

I'll be praying for you these next couple of weeks. The year is almost over. Work hard.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

He is Alive!

Happy Easter, 2017!

Growing up in our house, music was always an important way we celebrated Easter. My father would wake us up with "He is alive!" from the album "Celebrate Life," and for the rest of the day, the music would be blaring an eclectic mix of music both contemporary and ancient, reminding us of the joy of Christ's resurrection. Both as a way of remembering Dad and celebrating Easter, I've compiled a list of some of his favorites for Easter--and truth be told, some of my favorites as well.

 So here's what we woke up to every Easter morning as kids:


This next glorious hymn, "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling", written by Charles Wesley in 1747, makes me choke up every time we sing the last stanza in Church.

The last verse reads: "Finish, then, Thy new creation; Pure and spotless let us be. Let us see Thy great salvation, Perfectly restored in Thee; Changed from glory into glory, Till in heaven we take our place, Till we cast our crowns before Thee, Lost in wonder, love, and praise."


When I was younger, I played in a contemporary Christian music group called "Canticle". This version of "He is Alive" by Don Francisco was one we played frequently during Easter time:


Rather simply play the near entirety of Handel's Messiah, here's two pieces that are "must listen to" pieces every Easter:

First, "The Trumpet Shall Sound," beginning with the magnificent proclamation "Behold, I shall tell you a mystery!"

And of course, the Hallelujah Chorus:

If we don't sing "Jesus Christ has Risen Today!" at Mass every Sunday during the Easter season, I feel cheated:


And finally, this beautiful song, recorded at Sacred Heart Catholic Church on the Mobile Bay as part of the "Vigil Project." The song is called "I Have Seen the Lord."

He is risen up again! 

Monday, March 13, 2017

Calling us home!

This is my talk to students on the second Monday of Lent, St. Michael Catholic High School, March 13, 2017

“The measure by which you measure will be measured out for you.” (Luke 6:38)

This is from the gospel reading today.

I wonder if we realize what we’re praying for each time we recite the “Our Father” : “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. “ What are we asking God to do? To forgive us to the extent that we forgive others! To treat us exactly the same. Ouch. I wonder if we really want God to do that.

There’s a story of an older man who dies and meets St. Peter at the pearly gates of heaven. St. Peter has the man’s resume in front of him, and he’s looking it over. “To get in”, Peter tells the man, you have to have accumulated 1000 points over the course of your life. State your case” “OK,”  the man thinks, “I’ve been pretty good, I think I can reach that standard,” so he says to Peter, “Well, I’ve been a faithful husband to my wife for over 50 years.”  “Excellent, “ says St. Peter. “That’s one point.” The man gulps--one point? “Uh, I’ve been a good father to my children, provided for them well, raised them in the faith.”  “Yes you have,” Peter says, “I can see that here in your resume. Another point. “ Panicked now, the man says “I’ve been a faithful Catholic all my life. I’ve kept the Sunday obligation, tithed to my church, supported the Church in its various ministries.”  Peter says, “Yes, you’ve been quite admirable in this regard. Another point. “ “Three points?” the man says in utter despair. “A good husband, good father, faithful Catholic, and all I have is 3 lousy points? It's impossible to get in, then, unless God decides to let us pass."  As soon as he says this, the pearly gates swing open wide. “997 points,” St. Peter says. “Welcome, good and faithful servant.”

God is merciful. God forgives. Fortunately, the dominant image of God the Father from the New Testament  is not one of a judge who metes out justice, giving us what we deserve, but the Father who stands on his porch, waiting for his prodigal son to return home, and upon seeing him, runs to greet him and then throws a big party for him!

But most of us, I believe, have a different view of things. It’s like our lives are a cosmic see-saw, with good on one side and bad on the other. If we die, the see-saw better be weighted down on the good side, in which case we’re going to heaven. If it’s weighted on the bad side, we’re going to hell. It’s as if God is a giant Santa Claus, “making a list, checking it twice, gonna find out who’s naughty or nice.”

But this is actually a heresy--it’s called Pelagianism--because it suggests that we ourselves are responsible for our salvation--that we can “earn” it by being good. We can’t. Only God’s grace can save us. Only God’s mercy can save us.

But that is very good news, because God is merciful. No matter who we are, no matter what we’ve done, God forgives us. Whatever sins weigh us down, if we ask God for forgiveness, he forgives us completely. Completely! He doesn’t just drag it to the trash can of our computer drive, where it can be retrieved if we open up our trash. It’s erased, and gone for-ever. FOR--EV--ER (for those of you who have seen Sandlot).

So that’s the good news of Lent. It's very good news! Maybe you've done something you're not proud of. Sin shames us, eating a way a bit of our self-respect, each and every time we do it. But God stands on the porch, scanning the horizons like a hopeful Father,  hoping that you will return to him. He's ready to run down the driveway to welcome us home. 

May God give all of us the grace this Lent to journey back to him.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

The Secret to Academic Success

Because I am a high school principal, I am often asked by parents of younger children what kids need to "know" in order to be successful in high school. "What can we work with our kids on now," they ask, "which will make the biggest difference later?"

I often respond "Read to your child, and instill a love of reading in them." There's little doubt that kids who develop good reading skills early in life end up more successful later on. But lately, I've also been talking to parents about an exceptionally important character trait we must help our children develop, too.

In a famous study at Stanford University in 1972, Dr. Walter Michel created a simple test of the ability of four year old children to control impulses and delay gratification. Children were taken one at a time into a room with a one-way mirror. They were shown a marshmallow. The experimenter told them he had to leave and that they could have the marshmallow right then, but if they waited for the experimenter to return from an errand, they could have two marshmallows. One marshmallow was left on a table in front of them. Two out of every three children couldn't wait, and grabbed the available marshmallow before the experimenter returned, some within seconds of person leaving. Approximately one-third waited up to fifteen minutes for the experimenter to return. Here's a simulation of the experiment done more recently, as each kid tries to resist temptation, with some amusing footage:

Funny stuff! But the real bombshell came in the follow up study years later, when interviewers measured how the kids in the original study were doing as students. Those who delayed gratification for the full fifteen minutes scored on average 210 points higher on the SAT tests than those who gave in quickly--an astonishing difference given the length of time between testings. And these same children were judged better able to handle stress and cope with frustration during adolescence. In short, they were happier young adults, with more opportunity in front of them. 
As someone who has worked with teenagers the last 32 years, I don't find the conclusions of this study startling. There are marked positives in academic outcomes from students who are able to defer what is more pleasurable and complete the work in front of them. These are the students who begin writing papers earlier than the night before, who do their homework before they watch TV, who fight through boredom in school, who are willing to keep trying new approaches to solve problems and who come to tutorials when they don't understand a concept.

At the same time, the very strong correlation of delaying gratification with academic success as shown by the study--the sheer magnitude in importance of that one variable--is disturbing when one realizes how poorly we live by that principle as a society. The explosive growth of the fast food industry in the last twenty five years, the fact that the average American carries a debt of $8,562 on their credit cards (including undergraduates, without a full time job, who have an average balance of $2,200, not counting their college loans--yikes!), the emphasis on the "instant" (instant food, microwave ovens, video-on-demand, etc.) all suggest we don't delay gratification as adults, much less mentor our children in that skill!

Still, parents can make a big difference. Help them save their money. If you can still find one, the old piggy banks which require breaking the bank to access the money are useful. Force them to do their chores before lounging around the house or leaving the house to play with friends. Make sure homework is done before TV. Talk to them honestly about not being able to afford a new car, or an expensive vacation, so they see that you, too, are not able to do some of what you'd like to do. Help them understand in life, there are no "easy" buttons.

The evidence is in: teaching our children to delay gratification is one of the greatest gifts we can give our children.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

"Fixed" vs. "Growth" Mindsets

So as you know, we’re passing back pre-ACT results today. A couple of things to say so that you understand those scores. 

First, if you’re a freshman, those scores slightly underestimate your current abilities, because you’re being compared with sophomores across the nation. If you want to estimate that effect, you can add about 1 to 2 points to each sub-score and composite.  

Second, you’ll notice that underneath each of those sub-scores, they estimate what you’re likely to make on the ACT in late junior/early senior year. That’s if you grow at the same rate as the rest of the country.  But you can grow at a FASTER rate depending on your effort and attitude these next few years. 

And that’s what is very important to understand about these ACT scores. I want to make a distinction between a “fixed mindset” and a “growth mindset.” 

A “fixed mindset” says that “who I am now is who I’ll always be.” We often do this—in effect, we stereotype ourselves: You can hear it when someone says “I’m dumb,” or “I stink in Math.”  Sometimes girls think “I’m no good in Math or Science—that’s a boys’ thing—but I’m better in English.” Or exactly the opposite from the boys side: “I’m terrible in English, but I don’t care, because literature is for girls. Boys are supposed to be good in Math and Science and not English.” 

Do you see the common thread? I am ____. I will always be _____. We stereotype ourselves, labelling ourselves as either X or Y. 

The problem with a fixed mindset is it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Tell yourself you’re a dummy, believe the stereotype, and it’s pretty much guaranteed you’ll be a dummy all your life. “I’m just dumb in math, so I’ll quit trying to be anything different. Whenever I can, I’ll avoid having to do math.”  But then l never get smarter.  It’s as if intelligence is a FIXED THING—your IQ never changes. 

But science proves, over and over, that intelligence is NOT a fixed thing. It can improve. Or it can deteriorate! It’s all about the neural connections in our brain. How much effort we put in, how much sleep we get, exercise we do, what we eat, can affect the neural connections,  causing us to become smarter.  That’s what’s meant by a “growth” mindset. A growth mindset says “These are my scores now, but they’re not going to define me; I can improve them. I can get smarter. And if you really believe that, and live as if you can, you can in fact get smarter. 

Though it’s not common, I’ve known students to grow 10-12 points on certain subtest scores on the ACT from freshman year to senior year. Whereas improving by 4 points is normal growth from freshman to junior year, I’ve known more than a few students to grow by 6-8 points during that time. 

So don’t be discouraged by your scores. Regard these as your baseline, your starting point. OK, I was here when I was an underclassmen, but I’m going to work really hard, because I am shooting for ____.   

Go to bed earlier. How cool is that? It's the easiest first step in improving intelligence. If you’re snoozing in class a lot, that’s God’s way to telling you that your brain needs more rest. Exercise more regularly. If you feel sluggish, that means your brain isn’t at an optimal level. Eat good food—nutritious food. Yeah, fruits and vegetables, not the pre-processed sugars.  Tackle your worst subject with a kind of “kick butt” attitude—that you’re not going to let it defeat you. Discipline yourself to read more closely—if the teacher is assigning reading homework, read with a pen in hand and summarize the main point of what you read for each page: you’ll be amazed how much better you’ll comprehend if you have to summarize as you read. Start a good book—doesn’t have to be great literature—choose something that interests you. If you like horses, read about horses. Sports, read about sports. But turn off the smart phone at night and read some instead—that’s a HUGE part of the ACT, and to read well, you have to do it frequently. There are no shortcuts. 

Life is an adventure. Look at it as a challenge. Who we turn out to be, how smart we become, is partly up to us. Let’s embrace that and see how far we can go!