An Independent School • Grades 5-12

by Felicia Wilks, Upper School director

Upper School Director Felicia Wilks welcomed parents and guardians of Upper School students at Back-to-School Night on Oct. 20. Following is an excerpt from her speech.

I’d like to talk about two areas of particular focus in the Upper School this year: helping students seek balance in their relationship with technology; and helping students explore ideas and perspectives unlike their own.

These are challenging times to be an adolescent (adolescence is a challenging time no matter the era), but never before has it been so easy to access information, to connect to others near and far, or to be entertained. Advances in technology have brought a world of good to our lives, but technology has also challenged our ability to be fully present in the moment and to be exposed to perspectives and experiences we don’t already prefer. The gifts and challenges of the present must influence both parenting and how we approach teaching and learning. As the adults in our students’ lives, we can work together to help our students navigate this important time in their lives.

The Upper School’s first area of focus this year is promoting a healthy relationship with technology. Pulling students away from their screens is a challenge – at home and at school. At the Upper School, students know they are not allowed to use their phones in class or in advisory. By and large, students abide by this. Our students are deeply engaged in their learning, and the exceptional teaching they experience absorbs them, allowing them to forget they have social media to check… Adults on campus try to model the active face-to-face engagement we want our students to have, in addition to their rich online lives.

We are intentionally giving students opportunities to experience extended time away from technology. For instance, students leave their technology behind on all outdoor trips and Global Service Learning trips… [The] benefits of going without technology are clear. To a person, students reflect that being unplugged is a highlight of the trip experience. In a reflection from this summer, one student wrote, “Technology can be beneficial towards communication, but it can also be considered stressful at times. Being without technology on the trip allowed me to have more conversations with others on the trip when I might not have...Being without phones forced us to break through...roadblocks [in conversation] and delve into deeper conversation about ourselves and learn new things about each other.” Another student, who described herself as “someone constantly connected to others through social media” wrote that she initially struggled with the no-technology rule but as the trip progressed, she wrote, “I had no desire to be ruining my moments of appreciating nature or bonding with new friends by being attached to a screen.”

At home, striking this balance has been challenging for me. For starters, I sometimes have a hard time putting my own technology aside, failing to model the sort of balance I am asking of my girls. I also know my daughters use their technology to relax by listening to music, watching shows, and communicating with friends. These are the same things I wanted to do when I came home from school at their age; I just couldn’t do it all on one device.

I ask my girls to be conscious of how much time they spend on their phones and on other leisure activities. We don’t bring technology to the table when we share a meal. Many families collect phones and computers at the end of the night to ensure their students are getting uninterrupted sleep. I encourage you to talk to each other to find out other good strategies. Each household is different, so what works for one may not work for another. We don’t have to do the same things to be working toward the same goal: that our students learn to create balance for themselves when it comes to technology.

A second area of focus this year is teaching students to seek out multiple perspectives. During my opening-of-school address to students, I shared a quotation from Hans Rosling … who suggests that we be “open to new information and actively seeking it out... [and] embracing facts that don’t fit [our] worldview and trying to understand their implications.”

When so much of what we listen to and watch is tailored to our preferences, this skill of seeking out various perspectives is particularly important. At Lakeside, faculty regularly review both their teaching approaches and the content they use in class to ensure a wide range of perspectives are included. We want our curriculum to include ideas from different parts of the world and different parts of the country, from people of differing backgrounds and experiences, and differing views and beliefs.

We ask teachers to make space for the variety of views our students bring to school with them. Teaching students to look past their assumptions and listen to understand is not easy but it is important. As one teacher said, “It’s important that we expose students to diverse perspectives and challenge them to go beyond the sound bites and do the hard work of digging deeply to understand underlying reasons and contexts.” Fully educating independent and informed thinkers requires no less than this.

At Lakeside, the guardrails for open discussions are the school’s mission and the Statement of Community Expectations. As I said to students, language that demeans others for who they are or for some aspect of their identity is not consistent with our philosophy as a school. Everything we do filters through the school’s mission and community expectations. Our approach has been to provide students with positive examples of those who exemplify the school’s values. Our students themselves provide many positive examples, both those in leadership roles and those who lead by small acts each day: including those who would otherwise be left out, offering assistance where it is needed, and putting others before themselves.

At home, I am continually working to help my daughters remain open to a variety of perspectives. I ask them to share what they are learning at school and what they think of events in the news. If they have questions I try to resist the urge to offer an answer of my own and ask instead how they plan to answer their own questions. (They are teenagers, after all, and figure out all sorts of things I never taught them.) I challenge them to be critical of their assumptions and to explain the reasoning behind their ideas. I’ll admit that I try to ask them to share their ideas before I share my own, but I am not always successful. I also try to listen closely when they explain the way their lives are different from mine. My instinct says I know better, but they are right that I don’t know their experience better than they do. This practice—at school and at home—of allowing students to make sense of the world with trusted adults is a key developmental opportunity for our students.

All of us, teachers and parents/guardians, are working toward developing independent, confident, wise, and humble people who have an ethical framework and an interest in making things better for others and not just themselves. When we work together at school and at home to promote this growth, our students benefit.