Back to School Night Remarks by Head of Administration Dan Ingoglia

This is a modified version of comments delivered at both the grade school (Sept 12) and high school (Sept.14) Back-to-School Nights. 

We are excited to welcome you and your student to the 2011-2012 school year at SF Waldorf, our 14th year at the high school, and our 33rd year overall.

Having just received LEED Gold certification for the high school campus—and we are the first educational building in SF to do so (see LEED article)—we are very pleased to welcome our high school families to the officially recognized embodiment of many of our community values, and we invite any grade school families that have not seen the building to come for a tour. We will be explaining and celebrating this accomplishment in future events this year, so stay tuned.

Each new school year brings excitement, nervousness, and much anticipation from parents, students and teachers, all wondering how they will work with a new situation, and establish a new rhythm:

  • 12th graders wonder what it will be like to finally be at the top of the heap; they see the childishness of the 9th graders, often while becoming increasingly squeamish over the unknown abyss of next year; 
  • 11th graders wonder whether they can handle the academic load, and still have some kind of social life; curfew negotiations become decidedly more intense;
  • 10th graders feel greater comfort, in many cases maybe a bit too much, as they prepare to meet Dr. Carini in Mechanics and bask in having a bit more freedom to go off campus for lunch on Wednesdays;
  • 9th graders wonder how they’ll adjust to the new social scene, and experiment with making new friends, and trying new activities, like improvising in drama class or playing volleyball;8th graders finally arriving at the top of their big heap; 
  • 2nd year kindergarteners finally arriving at the top of their considerably smaller heap;
  • 6th graders wondering whether they can avoid accumulating 3 slips and thus a dreaded detention; 
  • 1st graders finally having their class teacher and a desk partner (“who’s your desk partner?”);
  • Teachers wondering whether the science experiment that went so well over the summer will work “live” in front of the class;
  • Finally, parents wonder whether they can maintain some form of healthy balance between maintaining and overseeing their children, their work, their relationships, and of course whether they can find moments for personal reflection and contemplation.

It’s an irony in our modern world that—on the one hand—in many ways we gear our K-12 education system toward developing this sense of contemplation, of deep reflection, of wonder, of connection to and reverence for life. We prize critical thinking, analysis, synthesis, persistence, intellectual rigor, and creativity—all are a form of contemplation, what Steiner called higher-soul capacities. And yet much of what we do every day—as adults certainly—seems to promote not contemplation, but conflation; not connection, but separation; not wonder, but wander; not reflection, but reaction. 

Reaction, in contrast to reflection, is considered unschooled, often embarrassing behavior that identifies us as animals, and with the lower senses. Reaction is anti-reflection, or not seeing oneself. It is spontaneous, trigger-happy, jittery, and grabs the chocolate without a moment’s hesitation. It causes us to alternate between distractedness and prompts us to “fight or flee”. 

Note that this is not the reactivity that Malcolm Gladwell identifies in his book Blink, which can be very useful and accurate, even when unschooled. This kind of intuition has biological roots, but is boosted immensely by life experience. 

Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows (which I note was this summer’s assigned reading to freshmen at Cornell University) discusses how this reactivity and distractedness has been fed by massive social and technological change over the last 25-50 years: TV has been here that long, but had been somewhat contained by size and availability. Now we have varieties of screen sizes and constant, and almost infinite, availability of almost any content on almost any screen. The time for deep contemplation has been largely replaced by surfing, which tellingly means skimming the surface of something.We have become jugglers more often, contemplatives less often, increasingly in fight or flight. We multi-task but how often do we contemplate? Can we be creative thinkers while juggling so many thoughts? The evidence is mixed at best.

No one can deny that digital tools can facilitate a kind of creativity, and are immensely useful: witness Twitter enabling Arab Spring (or the SFWHS website!), or the ease of finding the best auto repair shop on Yelp, or Skyping a guy in China, or creating digital effects in a film.Yet, as social psychologist Herbert Simon said “A wealth of information can lead to a poverty of attention.” ADHD is increasing, as is Groupthink, Red vs. Blue polarization; shouting one’s opinion increasingly lends it credence. Identity politics often trumps identification of details. We polarize this way because all of this complexity is overwhelming, and nearly impossible to digest, let alone contemplate. It’s easier to turn to Fox News or Keith Olberman to validate my view than engage in the tedium of sorting through, of trying to make sense of it all, of reflecting or contemplating deeply.

One thing seems fairly clear to me: if we don’t teach young people some form of contemplation, like teaching healthy nutrition, it is far less likely that they will pick it up as adults!
We hope that is one reason you chose SF Waldorf School: to provide your children with many opportunities for developing their capacity for contemplation, and there are many here:

  • Exploring math questions as interesting puzzles (Grades 1-12); 
  • Wondering whether the Hebrews will make it out of the desert (3rd grade) or Odysseus will make it back to Ithaca (10th grade);
  • Soldering a copper bracelet (9th grade), or knitting a complicated sock pattern (7th grade);
  • Really feeling the rhythm while singing or playing music (All);
  • Composing and reciting a poem from the heart (Grades 1-12); 
  • Making a tough shot in a basketball game (Grades 6-12);
  • Emoting in a play (All grades);
  • Tackling a difficult form drawing (Grades 1-8);
  • Finding the Golden Mean (6th grade);
  • Discovering the world together (Early Childhood/All school);
  • Or—most directly—joining the meditation club! (High School)

We greatly appreciate your commitment to the school, especially during these challenging economic times, and hope we can offer your students a semblance of balance between their needs to learn the skill of contemplation and the insistent and incessant reactivity that pervades much of our social discourse, whether digital or actual. These skills will be increasingly needed in our world as our students grow into adulthood.Thanks for coming tonight and welcome again to the new school year!