Supporting Transgender Students in Single Sex Schools


All-girls and all-boys independent schools face a unique moment of reflection as they consider policies to support openly transgender students. How might girls’ and boys’ schools stay true to their gender-specific missions while supporting students for whom that binary no longer applies? Join this online conversation with girls’ and boys’ school administrators and representatives from the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), National Coalition of Girls’ Schools (NCGS), and International Boys’ Schools Coalition (IBSC) as together we reflect on current challenges and future opportunities for educators to support transgender and nonbinary students in all-boys and all-girls schools.

Recording of Webinar

Synthesis of Breakout Discussion Groups:

Supporting Transgender Students in Girls’ and Boys’ Schools Tuesday, November 15, 1:00 p.m. ET

How might your school stay true to its gender-specific mission while supporting students for whom that binary no longer applies?

● Multiple breakout groups wrestled with the existential question: “What does it mean to be an all girls school or all boys school?” ○ Discussions raised the ideas of strong communities, and single-gender schools as safe spaces for students to explore their identities and grow intellectually and socially. ○ How do these ideas converge with gender fluidity or a non-binary concept of gender? Can schools still create a safe space for transgender students to explore their identity and find their voice? ○ Some schools emphasized our commitment to our kids and the value of each of them within our schools and beyond, and to consider how their transition will impact their continued growth and development into adulthood, college, returning for transcripts, and more. ○ Overall comments across all breakout groups emphasized the need to support the student and keep them at the center, as opposed to creating hard and fast policies.

● Another thorny question that was raised was “Can it be inconsistent with a school’s mission to have a transgender student in the school?” ○ Depending on where the student is in their school career, can the school better serve the student by keeping them in the community or by helping them find a school where the mission is better aligned with their transitioning identity? ○ Some girls schools reasoned that there was mission congruence in aligning women living in a patriarchal culture with transgender individuals in a dominant binary culture.

● Some groups focused on the wording or underlying meaning of the school’s mission ○ Specific words and phrases pulled from mission statements, such as “to be rather than to seem”, creating a caring and diverse community, affirming the worth and dignity of every individual, can be explicitly used to rally support for students ○ With a mission statement such as “build fine young men, one boy at a time”, finding space for a transitioning student is challenging, but language focuses on the individual needs of each student, which creates room for interpretation.

● Based on Tony’s narrative, some schools mused on the difference between supporting the transition of students who are existing members of your community versus encountering transgender students in the admissions process. Most attendees thought there should not be a specific question in admissions applications to screen for transgender students. What have been the primary challenges to confront in having initial conversations around supporting transgender students in your school? What have been the most rewarding moments?

● Challenges ○ Shifting from a binary view of gender. How we understand what a girl or what a boy is. ○ Parental perception and expectations. They send their student to a school and the paradigm shifts. Not ready to have conversations with their young students about gender and sex. ○ Education of and communication with the boards of trustees. Using outside resources from experts (Gender Spectrum) or religious organizations (Episcopal School) is beneficial. ○ Admissions process when a student has already transitioned and the school may not know at the outset. ○ Boarding schools. Housing. Which floor does the student live on? Based on a discussion with a lawyer, the students are living on the floor of the gender with which they identified.

● Points to Consider ○ Go through the student’s experience minute to minute and analyze every aspect of your school to ask what can affect them during a transition. If we backtrack and experience our school through students’ eyes, then maybe we can relate with them when they’re exploring their gender expression even before they make the decision to transition. We want to support our students fully, and maybe this starts sooner than when a student comes to us with a firm decision to transition. Maybe more students need our support as they are questioning. ○ Anecdotally, the largest groups of students who are talking about transitioning are ages 4 – 6 years old. When we started to talk about the process, we thought we’d work more with older, high school students. With this younger age group, it raises the question of whether we can continue to serve this student well years after they transition?

● Initial Steps of One School Shared ○ We are gathering groups of faculty, staff, trustees to start an ongoing conversation about vocabulary, transitioning and gender fluidity. We hope to proactively learn about the gender spectrum and think strategically about our approach now, so we will be ready to help a student when they need our support (rather than reacting to the situation when it does arise). We’re thinking about the series of concentric circles of faculty we’d involve and inform so that a specific student is supported but also so that their privacy is respected. The better we prepare ourselves as a school community, the better we can support all of our students.

Teaching the Teachers

Teaching the teachers

Great teaching has long been seen as an innate skill. But reformers are showing that the best teachers are made, not born

TO THE 11- and 12-year-olds in his maths class, Jimmy Cavanagh seems like a born teacher. He is warm but firm. His voice is strong. Correct answers make him smile. And yet it is not his pep that explains why his pupils at North Star Academy in Newark, New Jersey, can expect to go to university, despite 80% of their families needing help to pay for school meals.

Mr Cavanagh is the product of a new way of training teachers. Rather than spending their time musing on the meaning of education, he and his peers have been drilled in the craft of the classroom. Their dozens of honed techniques cover everything from discipline to making sure all children are thinking hard. Not a second is wasted. North Star teachers may seem naturals. They are anything but.

Like many of his North Star colleagues are or have been, Mr Cavanagh is enrolled at the Relay Graduate School of Education. Along with similar institutions around the world, Relay is applying lessons from cognitive science, medical education and sports training to the business of supplying better teachers. Like doctors on the wards of teaching hospitals, its students often train at excellent institutions, learning from experienced high-calibre peers. Their technique is calibrated, practised, coached and relentlessly assessed like that of a top-flight athlete. Jamey Verrilli, who runs Relay’s Newark branch (there are seven others), says the approach shows teaching for what it is: not an innate gift, nor a refuge for those who, as the old saw has it, “can’t do”, but “an incredibly intricate, complex and beautiful craft”.

Hello, Mr Chips

There can be few crafts more necessary. Many factors shape a child’s success, but in schools nothing matters as much as the quality of teaching. In a study updated last year, John Hattie of the University of Melbourne crunched the results of more than 65,000 research papers on the effects of hundreds of interventions on the learning of 250m pupils. He found that aspects of schools that parents care about a lot, such as class sizes, uniforms and streaming by ability, make little or no difference to whether children learn (see chart). What matters is “teacher expertise”. All of the 20 most powerful ways to improve school-time learning identified by the study depended on what a teacher did in the classroom.

Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford University, has estimated that during an academic year pupils taught by teachers at the 90th percentile for effectiveness learn 1.5 years’ worth of material. Those taught by teachers at the 10th percentile learn half a year’s worth. Similar results have been found in countries from Britain to Ecuador. “No other attribute of schools comes close to having this much influence on student achievement,” he says.

Rich families find it easier to compensate for bad teachers, so good teaching helps poor kids the most. Having a high-quality teacher in primary school could “substantially offset” the influence of poverty on school test scores, according to a paper co-authored by Mr Hanushek. Thomas Kane of Harvard University estimates that if African-American children were all taught by the top 25% of teachers, the gap between blacks and whites would close within eight years. He adds that if the average American teacher were as good as those at the top quartile the gap in test scores between America and Asian countries would be closed within four years.

Such studies emphasise the power of good teaching. But a question has dogged policymakers: are great teachers born or made? Prejudices played out in popular culture suggest the former. Bad teachers are portrayed as lazy and kid-hating. Edna Krabappel of “The Simpsons” treats lessons as obstacles to cigarette breaks. Good and inspiring teachers, meanwhile, such as Michelle Pfeiffer’s marine-turned-educator in “Dangerous Minds” (pictured), or J.K. Rowling’s Minerva McGonagall, are portrayed as endowed with supernatural gifts (literally so, in the case of the head of Gryffindor). In 2011 a survey of attitudes to education found that such portrayals reflect what people believe: 70% of Americans thought the ability to teach was more the result of innate talent than training.

Elizabeth Green, the author of “Building A Better Teacher”, calls this the “myth of the natural-born teacher”. Such a belief makes finding a good teacher like panning for gold: get rid of all those that don’t cut it; keep the shiny ones. This is in part why, for the past two decades, increasing the “accountability” of teachers has been a priority for educational reformers.

There is a good deal of sense in this. In cities such as Washington, DC, performance-related pay and (more important) dismissing the worst teachers have boosted test scores. But relying on hiring and firing without addressing the ways that teachers actually teach is unlikely to work. Education-policy wonks have neglected what one of them once called the “black box of the production process” and others might call “the classroom”. Open that black box, and two important truths pop out. A fair chunk of what teachers (and others) believe about teaching is wrong. And ways of teaching better—often much better—can be learned. Grit can become gold.


In 2014 Rob Coe of Durham University, in England, noted in a report on what makes great teaching that many commonly used classroom techniques do not work. Unearned praise, grouping by ability and accepting or encouraging children’s different “learning styles” are widely espoused but bad ideas. So too is the notion that pupils can discover complex ideas all by themselves. Teachers must impart knowledge and critical thinking.

Those who do so embody six aspects of great teaching, as identified by Mr Coe. The first and second concern their motives and how they get on with their peers. The third and fourth involve using time well, fostering good behaviour and high expectations. Most important, though, are the fifth and sixth aspects, high-quality instruction and so-called “pedagogical content knowledge”—a blend of subject knowledge and teaching craft. Its essence is defined by Charles Chew, one of Singapore’s “principal master teachers”, an elite group that guides the island’s schools: “I don’t teach physics; I teach my pupils how to learn physics.”

Branches of the learning tree

Teachers like Mr Chew ask probing questions of all students. They assign short writing tasks that get children thinking and allow teachers to check for progress. Their classes are planned—with a clear sense of the goal and how to reach it—and teacher-led but interactive. They anticipate errors, such as the tendency to mix up remainders and decimals. They space out and vary ways in which children practise things, cognitive science having shown that this aids long-term retention.

These techniques work. In a report published in February the OECD found a link between the use of such “cognitive activation” strategies and high test scores among its club of mostly rich countries. The use of memorisation or pupil-led learning was common among laggards. A recent study by David Reynolds compared maths teaching in Nanjing and Southampton, where he works. It found that in China, “whole-class interaction” was used 72% of the time, compared with only 24% in England. Earlier studies by James Stigler, a psychologist at UCLA, found that American classrooms rang to the sound of “what” questions. In Japan teachers asked more “why” and “how” questions that check students understand what they are learning.

But a better awareness of how to teach will not on its own lead to great teaching. According to Marie Hamer, the head of initial teacher training at Ark, a group of English schools: “Too often teachers are told what to improve, but not given clear guidance on how to make that change.” The new types of training used at Relay and elsewhere are intended to address that.

David Steiner of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy, in Baltimore, characterises many of America’s teacher-training institutions as “sclerotic”. It can be easier to earn a teaching qualification than to make the grades American colleges require of their athletes. According to Mr Hattie none of Australia’s 450 education training programmes has ever had to prove its impact—nor has any ever had its accreditation removed. Some countries are much more selective. Winning acceptance to take an education degree in Finland is about as competitive as getting into MIT. But even in Finland, teachers are not typically to be found in the top third of graduates for numeracy or literacy skills.

In America and Britain training has been heavy on theory and light on classroom practice. Rod Lucero of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE), a body representing more than half of the country’s teacher-training providers, says that most courses have a classroom placement. But he concedes that it falls short of “clinical practice”. After finishing an undergraduate degree in education “I didn’t feel I was anywhere near ready,” says Jazmine Wheeler, now a first-year student at the Sposato Graduate School of Education, a college which grew out of the Match charter schools in Boston.

This fits with a pattern Mr Kane’s research reveals to be “almost constant”: new teachers lack classroom management and instruction skills. As a result they struggle at first before improving over the subsequent three to five years. The new teaching schools believe that those skills which teachers now pick up haphazardly can be systematically imparted in advance. “Surgeons start on cadavers, not on live patients,” Mr Kane notes.

“We have thought a lot about how to teach 22-year-olds,” says Scott McCue, who runs Sposato. He and his colleagues have crunched good teaching into a “taxonomy” of things to do and say. “Of the 5,000 or so things that go into amazing teaching,” says Orin Gutlerner, Sposato’s founding director, “we want to make sure you can do the most important 250.”

The curriculum of the new schools is influenced by people like Doug Lemov. A former English teacher and the founder of a school in Boston, Mr Lemov used test-score data to identify some of the best teachers in America. After visiting them and analysing videos of their classes to find out precisely what they did, he created a list of 62 techniques. Many involve the basics of getting pupils’ attention. “Threshold” has teachers meeting pupils at the door; “strong voice” explains that the most effective teachers stand still when talking, use a formal register, deploy an economy of language and do not finish their sentences until they have their classes’ full attention.

But most of Mr Lemov’s techniques are meant to increase the number of pupils in a class who are thinking and the amount of time that they do so. Techniques such as his “cold call” and “turn and talk”, where pupils have to explain their thoughts quickly to a peer, give the kinds of cognitive workouts common in classrooms in Shanghai and Singapore, which regularly top international comparisons.

Trainees at Sposato undertake residencies at Match schools. They spend 20 hours per week studying and practising, and 40-50 tutoring or assisting teachers. Mr Gutlerner says that the most powerful predictor of residents’ success is how well they respond to the feedback they get after classes.

This new approach resembles in some ways the more collective ethos seen in the best Asian schools. Few other professionals are so isolated in their work, or get so little feedback, as Western teachers. Today 40% of teachers in the OECD have never taught alongside another teacher, observed another or given feedback. Simon Burgess of the University of Bristol says teaching is still “a closed-door profession”, adding that teaching unions have made it hard for observers to take notes in classes. Pupils suffer as a result, says Pasi Sahlberg, a former senior official at Finland’s education department. He attributes much of his country’s success to Finnish teachers’ culture of collaboration.

Mr Schneebly needs his feedback

As well as being isolated, teachers lack well defined ways of getting better. Mr Gutlerner points out that teaching, alone among the professions, asks the same of novices as of 20-year veterans. Much of what passes for “professional development” is woeful, as are the systems for assessing it. In 2011 a study in England found that only 1% of training courses enabled teachers to turn bad practice into good teaching. The story in America is similar. This is not for want of cash. The New Teacher Project, a group that helps cities recruit teachers, estimates that in some parts of America schools shell out about $18,000 per teacher per year on professional development, 4-15 times as much as is spent in other sectors.

The New Teacher Project suggests that after the burst of improvement at the start of their careers teachers rarely get a great deal better. This may, in part, be because they do not know they need to get better. Three out of five low-performing teachers in America think they are doing a great job. Overconfidence is common elsewhere: nine out of ten teachers in the OECD say they are well prepared. Teachers in England congratulate themselves on their use of cognitive-activation strategies, despite the fact that pupil surveys suggest they rely more on rote learning than teachers almost everywhere else.

It need not be this way. In a vast study published in March, Roland Fryer of Harvard University found that “managed professional development”, where teachers receive precise instruction together with specific, regular feedback under the mentorship of a lead teacher, had large positive effects. Matthew Kraft and John Papay, of Harvard and Brown universities, have found that teachers in the best quarter of schools ranked by their levels of support improved by 38% more over a decade than those in the lowest quarter.

Such environments are present in schools such as Match and North Star—and in areas such as Shanghai and Singapore. Getting the incentives right helps. In Shanghai teachers will not be promoted unless they can prove they are collaborative. Their mentors will not be promoted unless they can show that their student-teachers improve. It helps to have time. Teachers in Shanghai teach for only 10-12 hours a week, less than half the American average of 27 hours.

No dark sarcasm

In many countries the way to get ahead in a school is to move into management. Mr Fryer says that American school districts “pay people in inverse proportion to the value they add”. District superintendents make more money than teachers although their impact on pupils’ lives is less. Singapore has a separate career track for teachers, so that the best do not leave the classroom. Australia may soon follow suit.

The new models of teacher training that will start those careers have yet to be thoroughly evaluated. Early evidence is encouraging, however. Relay and Sposato both make their trainees’ graduation dependent on improved outcomes for students. A blind evaluation that Relay undertook of its teachers rated them as higher than average, especially in classroom management. At Ark, in England, recent graduates are seen by the schools that have hired them as among the best cohorts that they have received.

Mr Steiner notes, though, that it is not yet clear whether these new teachers are “school-proof”: effective in schools that lack the intense culture of feedback and practice of places like Match. This is a big caveat: across the OECD two-thirds of teachers believe their schools to be hostile to innovation.

If the new approaches can be made to work at scale, that should change. Relay will be in 12 cities by next academic year, training 2,000 teachers and 400 head teachers, including those from government-run schools. This year AACTE launched its own commission investigating ways in which its colleges could move to a similar model. In England Matthew Hood, an entrepreneurial assistant head teacher, has plans for a Relay-like “Institute for Advanced Teaching”.

This way, reformers hope, they can finally improve education on a large scale. Until now, the job of the teacher has been comparatively neglected, with all the focus on structural changes. But disruptions to school systems are irrelevant if they do not change how and what children learn. For that, what matters is what teachers do and think. The answer, after all, was in the classroom.

Finland Will Become the First Country in the World to Get Rid of All School Subjects


Finland Will Become the First Country in the World to Get Rid of All School Subjects

Finland’s education system is considered one of the best in the world. In international ratings, it’s always in the top ten. However, the authorities there aren’t ready to rest on their laurels, and they’ve decided to carry through a real revolution in their school system.

Finnish officials want to remove school subjects from the curriculum. There will no longer be any classes in physics, math, literature, history, or geography.

The head of the Department of Education in Helsinki, Marjo Kyllonen, explained the changes:

“There are schools that are teaching in the old-fashioned way which was of benefit in the beginning of the 1900s — but the needs are not the same, and we need something fit for the 21st century.“

Instead of individual subjects, students will study events and phenomena in an interdisciplinary format. For example, the Second World War will be examined from the perspective of history, geography, and math. And by taking the course ”Working in a Cafe,” students will absorb a whole body of knowledge about the English language, economics, and communication skills.

This system will be introduced for senior students, beginning at the age of 16. The general idea is that the students ought to choose for themselves which topic or phenomenon they want to study, bearing in mind their ambitions for the future and their capabilities. In this way, no student will have to pass through an entire course on physics or chemistry while all the time thinking to themselves “What do I need to know this for?”

The traditional format of teacher-pupil communication is also going to change. Students will no longer sit behind school desks and wait anxiously to be called upon to answer a question. Instead, they will work together in small groups to discuss problems.

The Finnish education system encourages collective work, which is why the changes will also affect teachers. The school reform will require a great deal of cooperation between teachers of different subjects. Around 70% of teachers in Helsinki have already undertaken preparatory work in line with the new system for presenting information, and, as a result, they’ll get a pay increase.

The changes are expected to be complete by 2020.

4 Tips on Teaching Problem Solving (From a Student)


Two Rivers Public Charter School


At Two Rivers Public Charter School, they taught us how to problem solve, and they made it relevant. Here are four tips that engaged me in my learning that you can adapt in your classroom:

1. Give Your Students Hard Problems

In the real world, we’re not going to have nice problems that will be easy to understand. We are going to have complex problems that require a lot more preparation than most math, science, or English classes will give us. The challenges in the real world won’t be simple, and the problems that are supposed to prepare us for that world shouldn’t be either.

2. Make Problem Solving Relevant to Your Students’ Lives

In the seventh grade, we looked at statistics concerning racial murders and the jury system. That’s something that is going to affect students later in life, and we got a chance to look at it from a mathematical perspective. Problems like that are actually relevant to us, and they’re not things we’re supposed to just memorize or learn. They are things from which we can take very important life lessons, and then actually apply them later on in life.

Related Article: Solving Real World Issues Through Problem-Based Learning

In the eighth grade, we wrote policy briefs in relation to gene editing and presented them to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. We talked to researchers who worked with CRISPR-Cas9 (a gene editing tool used to modify specific genes in organisms), and we studied how gene editing is evolving and how we can use this modern technology for science applications. At the same time, in English, we read The Giver by Lois Lowry and analyzed whether the society in the book was ethical to gain an understanding of what ethical means and how it’s applicable in real situations, like gene editing.

This wasn’t something where we were being told, “Somebody’s going to buy 60 watermelons at a store.” This was actually happening in real life, and the only people really discussing this were people whom it wasn’t even going to affect. This science won’t come into widespread use until much later, and we’re going to be the first ones who are actually in danger from the possible consequences of it. By presenting our policy briefs, we had a chance to make an impact and get our voice out there at only 14.

3. Teach Your Students How to Grapple (It’s More Powerful Than Perseverance)

Grappling is like perseverance, but it goes beyond that. Perseverance means trying again and again, even after you’ve failed. Grappling implies trying even before you fail the first time. It’s thinking, “First, I’ll work with it independently. Okay, I’m really not understanding it. Let me go back to my notes. Okay, I have solved for the first part of it. Now I have the second part of it. Okay, I got the question wrong; let me try again. Maybe I can ask my peer now.” Grappling is working hard to make sure you understand the problem fully, and then using every resource at your fingertips to solve it.

4. Put More Importance on Student Understanding Than on Getting the Right Answer

I am graduating from Two Rivers with a practical view of the world. I don’t think that many students come out of middle school saying, “It was great.” And I don’t think many students have had this introduction to our society and its benefits and drawbacks. I’m also coming out of here with incredible problem-solving skills and the ability to look at any problem and have 10,000 ways to solve it in my mind already—because we don’t just memorize functions or the periodic table. We understand why, and we work to understand how to solve a problem instead of just getting the answer.

As students preparing for the real world, it is so much more impactful for us if our learning is relevant and challenging than if it is just about memorizing the right answers.

The School of Wants and Needs — and Wood-Fired Showers

IN THE HILLS ABOVE SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — A day in the life of Matias Barrera looks a bit like that of many other private-school students. There is the rigorous college preparatory curriculum. And a dining hall with local organic beets, plus a cook who whips up fresh salsa.

But at 9 o’clock on a recent Sunday morning, he and some classmates stuffed themselves into the back seat of an aging pickup truck cab and set out to gather a week’s worth of firewood. Later, other students chopped some of it.

Then, at the appointed shower hour, several others built fires to heat the water tanks that do (or do not) ensure a comfortable bathing experience for the 81 students who live in unheated cabins here.

Finally, at a chapel meeting in the early evening, Mr. Barrera regaled the students and faculty members with a talk about how he wondered if the place was a rehab facility when he and his family arrived.


Midland students gathered for afternoon assembly, where roll is called and announcements are made.CreditMelissa Lyttle for The New York Times

At the Midland School in Los Olivos, Calif., $49,900 buys a school year’s room and board and a shot at Stanford and Harvard, just as a fee in the mid-five figures would at Andover or Exeter. But at Midland, it also gets teenagers a lesson in wants, needs and the slippery continuum stretching between them. It is the very lesson that many grown-ups wish we’d gotten long ago.

Staggering as that price is, it would be a whole lot more if the school required janitorial services or a larger fleet of kitchen aides. But it doesn’t, since the students more or less run the place. And that is fitting for a school where the founder, Paul Squibb, declared back in 1932 that he wanted to create an institution free of the clutter that comes from affluence and the need to keep up with whatever everyone else has or does.

Eighty-four years later, that philosophy manifests itself in a campus that would almost certainly make the Top 10 list for most spartan among the nation’s private secondary schools. And when it comes to the most elemental needs — food, light, heat — the students play the largest role in providing them.

“Working to meet basic needs, and not just having those needs met, is itself an essential human need,” according to the dean of studies, Lise Schickel Goddard, who channeled the legacy of Mr. Squibb in a history of the school this year.


Elizabeth Chamberlain, 14, left, and Eliza Merrall, 16, chopped wood they collected for the fires that heat their afternoon showers.CreditMelissa Lyttle for The New York Times

Midland students are among a shrinking number of California residents who don’t have to worry too much about where their water comes from, since the school sits atop an aquifer that is ample to supply its needs.

Power, however, is a central concern, and a curricular one, too. Each year, the sophomore class is responsible for a new solar installation intended to draw another 3 percent of the school’s electricity needs from the sun.

As for food, about 50 percent of the produce that students and faculty members eat comes from the 10 acres of land that they farm organically. Most of the meat comes from pigs and cows they raise. Students work in the kitchen, too, along with the cook and a few other employees.

And then there’s the matter of warmth. The cabins have only basic wood stoves. Upperclassmen often do without them, given how much space they take up.


Sayer Johnston, 14, built a fire before heading off to an afternoon shower at Midland School.CreditMelissa Lyttle for The New York Times

The shower fires, however, are perhaps Midland’s best-known ritual, the thing that many visiting college representatives want to see. It doesn’t take much to get one going as long as there is plenty of wood at the appointed hour. But if the day’s six fire-starters shirk their duties, it is their classmates who suffer. They can, and do, give a form of demerit to one another (resulting in additional work duties) when necessary.

“What I need now is directly correlated with what everyone else needs,” said Duncan McCarthy, a senior. “It’s not that I need a shower. Everyone does. That was not the case at school before, where all I needed to do was homework.”

Faculty members maintain a loose oversight on the various work duties and will hear appeals when there are disagreements among the students. “But with showers, there is no faculty supervision whatsoever,” said Lynda Cummings, the director of college counseling, who also lives on the school grounds but does not have to have to fire up her own shower. “If a kid doesn’t do the job and everyone gets a cold shower, do I care? Not really.”

Midland does not value suffering per se. But turning teenagers loose with axes, fire, kitchen knives and live animals in the service of heat and food is, to its leaders, no different from nudging them into an Advanced Placement class. “All of us are pretty poor judges of the limits of our ability,” said Christopher Barnes, the head of school. “So we try to push them past the limits of their experience while staying within the limits of their ability.”


Phil Hasseljian, left, in his classroom at the Midland School, where students can get help after hours.CreditMelissa Lyttle for The New York Times

The trick is doing so without being reckless, which entails its own complex calculations of wants and needs. The cabins have sprinklers mainly because of those wood stoves, but no other running water. Students who ring the bell that wakes everyone up and rules the schedule wear ear protection, but they also may ride around on their bikes without wearing helmets.

Jose Juan Ibarra, a graduate of the school and now a faculty member, still has a scar on his shoulder from an aggressive bout of teenage wood gathering. And in an accident in 2002, a student who was riding in the bed of a pickup truck a few miles up the road from the main part of campus was killed.

As always, most discussions of wants and needs (and Midland grown-ups do not shy away from any of them) eventually come around to the following question: How much is enough? How much risk to take? How much dessert — which is a want and not a need, but it’s something that Maggie Tang, a junior, nevertheless whipped up for everyone 47 times during the last school year.

How much internet? Not much or just enough, depending on whether you’re a teacher or a student. The school confiscates phones, but service signals are nearly nonexistent anyway and the school’s Wi-Fi network steers clear of the cabins. Still, the outside world intervenes via Amazon.


Jamie Borghesani, 14, spends his free time strumming his guitar in a hammock.CreditMelissa Lyttle for The New York Times

“We have a handful of students who are very affluent and who don’t think anything of just ordering anything they see,” Mr. Barnes said. “It has transgressed this boundary that Paul Squibb tried to create by being five miles up the road.” After one particularly egregious $400 fashion purchase arrived, the head of school gently asked the recipient about its appropriateness.

And finally, how much, for lack of a better term, fanciness? Over the years, grateful alumni have inquired about sprucing up the place, perhaps with a tennis program or a swimming pool. But the school wants nothing to do with such things, which are neither simple nor cheap to maintain. Better, it believes, to put money into the financial aid budget, which serves 56 percent of the student body, with an average scholarship of $33,553.

Even so, I couldn’t help wondering whether the Midland gestalt wasn’t all so much rich hippie pablum, what with the dogs that some students bring to school (who must pass their own admissions test) and buildings that are partly open to the elements. Recent Stanford and Harvard admissions aside, is it mostly a place where parents send their children for a sort of spiritual delousing?

Midland faculty members and administrators have heard it all before. Mr. Barnes, who is new on the job this year, says he believes he may have a different problem. The place is so serious about living its truth that it may be scaring off some families. It is not quite at capacity, and he would like it to be.

But when he was running the hiring gantlet and talking about all of that, he received a clear message that he was not to fool with the bathing ritual. Midland students are very protective of their shower fires.

Mr. Barnes and his family spent a few years on a small sailboat with no shower before they came to California, so he was pretty sure he knew how those teenagers felt. “If you can narrow down your sense of need,” he said, “you can buy yourself an incredible amount of freedom.”

What the Heck Is Restorative Justice?

With the right training and support, restorative justice can prove more effective than traditional discipline measures in building a stronger school community.

I’m going to simplify the new school management term du jour (that’s actually been around for awhile): restorative justice. Google the term and you’ll see restorative justice is defined as “a system of criminal justice that focuses on the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and the community at large.” It may sound like a term used in a prison. (It is, actually.)

But let’s state it in the way it is being used in our schools. In sum, restorative justice helps a student to own what she/he did, make it right for those hurt or affected, and involve the community in helping both the victim and the offender. Restorative justice acknowledges that those who do wrong need healing as well.

The myth is that restorative justice replaces harsher consequences. The truth is that restorative justice represents the steps that lead up to more harsh consequences, should they be necessary.

The Process of Restorative Justice

Sometimes in educational discipline we whip out the cannons of suspension first. But with the right training and support from all stakeholders, restorative justice can prove much more effective in building a stronger school community. And, let’s face it, the challenge of making amends is a task that, for many kids, is far harder than just staying home for three days.

According to Howard Zehr, a recognized founding father of restorative justice, the concept is based on three pillars:

  1. Harms and needs
  2. Obligation (to put right)
  3. Engagement (of stakeholders)

In other words:

1. Empathy for all and by all. There must be awareness that while harm was done to a victim — and possibly a larger community — there may also have been past harm done to the accused as well, and that harm may be a factor in his or her behavior.

2. A mumbled “sorry” is not enough. There must be a process, a moderated one, which helps the accused somehow right the wrong that was committed.

3. Everyone is involved in the healing. There must include a dialogue with all parties — victim, offender, and even community — in order to genuinely move on and have an impact.

How About the Term Restorative Justice?

While I think the strategy of restorative justice is one that many schools should be using, I think the term isn’t great. I don’t have anything against the individual words per se. After all, the words restorative and justice sound lovely by themselves. When I hear the word restorative, I think about building back one’s strength after a sickness. I think about honoring one’s dignity and helping to rebuild what was taken away. When I think about justice, I think about fairness, equitable opportunities, and using the strength of a system to stand up for what is right.

But somehow, when you put the two words together, they take on a different sound that does a disservice to the term’s intention. Why use such a loaded term? I think — and I’m just musing here — that it has to do with critics of “softer” discipline. I believe restorative justice is a term meant to instill toughness, while really meaning empathy and using more compassionate steps before utilizing more stringent ones.

But, the fact is, restorative justice is a vital component in any larger discipline plan. Schools must have strategies whereby they help students work out their differences and their arguments. Schools must play a part in helping students understand why they do things and how to think beyond their emotional impulses.

Restorative Justice Supports Student Brain Development

And this isn’t just fluffy thinking here. We’re talking about brain development and acknowledging that when we ask students to make good decisions, their brains might not yet be wired to do what we are asking of them. That doesn’t mean we don’t have rules or expectations. It doesn’t mean we don’t give consequences for not functioning within those rules. But it does mean that we must acknowledge that, as the book by the National Institute of Mental Health says, children’s brains are “still under construction.”

We know, for instance, that the part of the brain that houses impulse control is one of the last parts of the brain to become fully formed. And it doesn’t really finish its neural-evolution until the early 20s. We also know that poverty, hormones, andpoor nutrition and hunger can play a role in one’s brain development.

Heck, even a fight with your best friend can influence a decision that can put a kid on the naughty list. So for all of those reasons, we can’t assume “criminal” intentions of our students without providing the steps to help see them through the gloom that can simply be defined as childhood and adolescence.

Some, like me, may consider the term restorative justice a little harsh, but the goal of utilizing restorative justice before harsher methods of discipline is, for lack of a better word, just.

Nudges That Help Struggling Students Succeed

When I was in high school, I earned A’s in all my math classes — until I took calculus. In algebra and geometry, I could coast on memorizing formulas, but now I had to think for myself.

It was disastrous, culminating in my getting a charity “C,” and I barely passed my college calculus class.

The reason, I was convinced, was that I didn’t have a math mind. I have avoided the subject ever since.

It turns out that I got it wrong. While it’s unlikely that I could have become a math whiz, it wasn’t my aptitude for math that was an impediment; it was my belief that I had the impediment to begin with.

I’m not the only person convinced that he can’t like math. Millions of college freshmen flunk those courses and, because algebra is often required, many drop out of school altogether. A report from the Mathematical Association of America flagged math as “the most significant barrier” to graduation.

This fatalistic equation can be altered. In scores of rigorously conducted studies, social psychologists have demonstrated that brief experiences can have a powerful and long-lasting impact on students’ academic futures by changing their mind-sets before they get to college.

Consider these examples from three recent studies:

• A cohort of sixth-grade students was taught, in eight lessons, that intelligence is malleable, not fixed, and that the brain is a muscle that grows stronger with effort. Their math grades, which had been steadily declining, rose substantially, while the grades of classmates who learned only about good study habits continued to get worse.

• When an English teacher critiqued black male adolescents’ papers, she added a sentence stating that she had high expectations and believed that, if the student worked hard, he could meet her exacting standards. Eighty-eight percent of those students rewrote the assignment and put more effort into rewriting, while just a third of their peers, who were given comments that simply provided feedback, did the same.

• In a series of short written exercises, sixth graders wrote about values that were meaningful to them, like spending time with their family and friends. After this experience, white students did no better, but their black and Latino classmates improved so much that the achievement gap shrank by 40 percent.

There is every reason to be skeptical of these findings. Like magic spells cast by a modern-day Merlin, they sound much too good to be true. Why should brief interventions carry so much punch when more intricate and costly strategies — everything from summer school to single-sex education — are often less effective?

Innovative social-psychological thinking, not magic, is at work here. These interventions focus on how kids, hunched over their desks in the back of the classroom, make sense of themselves and their environment. They can be brief but powerful because they concentrate on a single core belief.

There are three strategies represented here. The first, pioneered by the Stanford social psychology professor Carol Dweck and illustrated by the initial example, aims to change students’ mind-sets by showing them that their intelligence can grow through deliberate work. I’ve written about Dr. Dweck’s theories as applied to college students, but they are just as successful with students in middle school.

The second uses constructive critical feedback to instill trust in minority adolescents, a demonstrably powerful way to advance their social and intellectual development.

The third intervention — and in some ways, the most powerful — invites students to acknowledge their self-worth, combating the corrosive effects of racial stereotypes, by having them focus on a self-affirming value.

These interventions are designed to combat students’ negative feelings. I’m dumb, some believe; I don’t belong here; the school views me only as a member of an unintelligent group. The first two experiences give students the insight that brain work will make them smarter. The third invites them to situate themselves on the path to belonging or to connect with their values in a classroom setting. The goals are to build up their resilience and prepare them for adversity.

The impact, in all these studies, is greatest on black and Latino students. That makes sense, since as adolescents they are far more inclined to see teachers as prejudiced and school as a hostile environment. As these youths come to feel more secure, they are likely to make a greater effort. Success begets success. They start earning A’s and B’s instead of C’s, they take tougher classes and connect more readily with like-minded students.

An unpublished study by social psychologists shows that the impact echoes years later. African-American seventh graders who were asked to write about the most important value in their lives were propelled on an entirely different path from classmates who wrote about neutral topics. Two years later, the students in the first group were earning better grades and were more likely to be on track for college, rather than in remedial classes.

The reverberations persisted beyond high school. These students were more likely to graduate, to enroll in college and to attend more selective institutions.

Can this kind of intervention work on a grander scale? A 2015 study conducted by researchers at Stanford and the University of Texas suggests so. When 45-minute growth-mind-set interventions were delivered online to 1,500 students in 13 high schools scattered across the country, the weakest students were significantly more likely to earn satisfactory grades in their core courses than classmates who didn’t have the same intervention.

Using the same approach nationwide, the researchers conclude, would mean 1.8 million more completed courses each year, hundreds of thousands fewer students departing high school with no diploma, slotted into dead-end futures.

Let’s be clear — these brief interventions aren’t a silver bullet, a quick-and-easy way to transform K-12 education. While they can complement good educational practice, they are no substitute for quality in the classroom.

Students who come to see themselves as the masters of their own destiny can take advantage of opportunities to learn, but only if those opportunities exist. They won’t learn biology unless there’s a biology class, and they won’t learn to be critical thinkers unless the school makes that a priority. What’s more, as the researchers are quick to point out, a brief intervention can’t even begin to address the pernicious effects of poverty and discrimination.

Still, these experiences require a trivial amount of time, cost next to nothing and can make an outsize difference in students’ lives. What’s not to like?