The energy and optimism of a new school year is always refreshing after a long summer. It is in this time of promise and excitement that I find it helpful to reflect upon the school’s Honor Code, the code of ethics that we’ve all agreed to follow by being here.
The Episcopal Honor Code
One thing that I find fascinating about this code is that it reminds us of the old adage that with great power comes great responsibility. I spent a lot of time this summer thinking about this kind of power and responsibility, mostly through the science fiction books I read. Though I love to read, I’ve pretty much always hated science fiction.
I mostly hated sci-fi growing up because my little sister loved it, especially the tv show, Star Trek: the Next Generation. My sister dabbled in speaking Klingon, wore a Starfleet pennant, and, when anyone criticized her Star Trek obsession, she’d shout: “Well, you wouldn’t make a very good Starfleet Officer!” before attempting to beam herself up. As her older brother, I wasn’t about to be associated with something that seemed so absurd.
But, as time has passed, one thing that has caught my interest about science fiction is the way in which these stories consider the consequences of events across time, deep into the future, and the urgent need to become aware of the power we have in the present to shape our world. This has helped shift the way in which I view this genre. One of the most famous science fiction writers of the 20th century, Ray Bradbury, wrote: “A lot of intellectuals think science fiction is trivial. And it's pivotal! People are walking around the streets with phones to their heads talking to someone ten feet away. We've killed two million people with automobiles. We're surrounded by technology and the problems created by technology, and science fiction isn't important?...I have to write these books and help change the future."
Bradbury wrote that in the 1990s. Imagine what he would write now about how terrifying it is to look at nearly every car at a stoplight, or even cruising down the highway, and see the drivers staring at their cell phones. His urgency twenty years ago about the long term effects of this technology and our habits around it was clearly prescient.
As Bradbury’s point about the urgency of looking forward to the consequences of our actions sank in this summer, I also began to consider more the ways in which events in the past have shaped our present. One article that really struck me was a recent study published in Science magazine that suggests that certain kinds of experiences can create “epigenetic memories” that can be passed down for up to 14 generations. In other words, experiences in an environment, not just DNA, may significantly affect one’s descendants across many generations. While scientists are still scratching the surface of this possibility, consider the implications of this: what effect might the experiences of your 14th great grandmother’s immigration to Iceland in 1667 have on you today? Now think of yourself as the 14th great grandparent to people in the future. What effect will the experience of sitting through this Convocation have on your descendants 350 years from now in the year 2367? The possibilities are mind boggling. Honestly, when I consider this possibility in myself, this is a power that I don’t even want to have.
There’s something kind of terrifying when we consider how dependent we are on the lives of those who came before us, and, in kind, the power we have over the lives of those who will come after us. How could we ever live up to this overwhelming responsibility?
I think one answer to this question of what we can do with this tremendous power we each hold over our own lives, and especially over the lives of others, is to not look so much forwards or backwards, but right directly in the eyes of the present moment we find ourselves in. To take responsibility for it, and for what we do within each moment. And by moment, I mean each moment...I mean this very moment. As our Honor Code asks of us, tend to this moment with an awareness of our great power, individually and collectively, to change our world.
We’ve been given the chance to be here by those who’ve come before us, and we’re giving those that come after us a chance to be here in this space of Episcopal, and on this changing planet, in a way that is better than we can ever imagine.
Thank you for taking on this commitment.
Let’s have a great school year.
Dr. Spree MacDonald
Dr. Thomas “Spree” MacDonald, joined Episcopal as the Upper School Division Head in 2016. Previously, he helped lead the development of the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts’ A-rated Academic Studio as its Co-Chair, the Chair of Humanities, and Co-Chair of the campus-wide Faculty Leadership Team.
Writing a memoir may not be the task you imagine a Lower School student tackling during the school year, but here at Episcopal that is just what happens. Third graders (eight year olds) learn to express their own voice through written word – what an incredible accomplishment for someone so young! Last May our students concluded their writing lessons by sharing their works with parents and teachers at an Author Share event. (Click here to see photos and stories from this exciting day.) Now with the start of a new year the writing movement continues.
Episcopal educators Amy Arceneaux (3rd), Liz Crawford (4th), Heather Harpole (1st) and Rebecca Milligan (8th) joined teachers from around the world this summer to learn the art of teaching children to write at The Teacher’s College of Columbia University Writing Workshop. The group is enthusiastic, energetic and eager to share their knowledge with students, fellow teachers and the entire Episcopal community.
The premise of the Writing Workshop program, which was created by renowned educator Lucy Calkins, is that students learn the concepts of writing – draft ideas, revise, edit and publish – in a workshop setting where teachers serve as guides in the process. The budding writers are introduced to writing essays, narratives, research-based arguments and informational texts. Students write more and longer to boost their overall writing stamina and reinforce the concepts of writing. In addition, the classroom and lessons are set up in a way that encourages the writing process.
All four Episcopal workshop participants expressed honor and gratitude for the opportunity to attend such an influential learning program. Each of our trainees underwent a rigorous application process where they showcased their commitment to teaching writing and the support they have from their school. Once at Columbia, teachers heard firsthand from writing experts and bestselling authors and even had the opportunity to work one-on-one with the workshop’s founder Lucy Calkins. All of this ignited a passion within them that they are more than ready to share with their students and colleagues.
Supporting our teachers in the Writing Workshop was something the professional development team was happy to do as we understand the importance of writing and the far-reaching impacts of students who learn to write well. Staying current with these types of strategies strengthens and enhances our teaching and supports student learning in invaluable ways. While there are many talented teachers at Episcopal and we can often draw on their expertise right here at home, it is always exciting and rewarding when our teachers are selected to participate in prestigious opportunities such as the Writing Workshop. Parents and Episcopal supporters can also be proud of their part in this learning opportunity as donations to The eFund were used to make this inspiring experience a reality.
We hope that as the year progresses you witness firsthand how your child’s writing prowess expands and develops. We look forward to celebrating another successful Author Share with you in May. Keep writing and supporting your young writer!
After teaching third, fifth, and sixth grade at Episcopal from 1990 - 1995, Bridget returned in 2011 as the Head of Lower School. Bridget received her undergraduate degree in Elementary Education in 1986 from LSU. In 2002, she earned her master’s degree in Gifted Education with a minor in Educational Technology from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. She completed her administrative certification at Louisiana Tech University in 2005. She has been an educator for twenty-eight years, eighteen of which were spent teaching traditional and gifted classes in private, public, and Parochial schools. She has ten years of experience as an elementary school administrator and is in her seventh year as Head of Lower School at Episcopal.
But he could no longer disbelieve in the reality of love, since God Himself had loved his individual soul with divine love from all eternity. Gradually, as his soul was enriched with spiritual knowledge, he saw the whole world forming one vast symmetrical expression of God's power and love. (4.1.9)
-- Students as Artists of Life --
Over the last few months, I have experimented with the thought of striving to be an artist of my own life. This is working well for me. Along the way, I have realized how important this concept is to life at Episcopal. Now as we begin a new school year together, I want to share that message with you.
Talking (or writing) of artistry and love in public does not come naturally or quickly to guys like me. Whispering and low tones are the venues for most of us when love is called forth. Here, in my eighth year at Episcopal and 16th year working in education, the love of God that is palpable at Episcopal School of Baton Rouge pushes me to overcome my “bro-ness” and bring love to light. In the quote above, James Joyce reminds us that we can “no longer disbelieve in the reality of love, since God Himself” has loved our “individual soul with divine love from all eternity.”
Making a commitment to conduct myself as an artist in my daily work never fails to bring me my most enjoyable, productive and kind days. There is something about thinking of myself as an artist of life—or artist of the day--that naturally uplifts my spirits and my conduct. A day seems to go better when I say to myself “Be an artist today” as I leave the car.
Being at Episcopal School of Baton Rouge among our students, colleagues, parents and community members has engendered my thinking about the artistry in us all. In no small way, the Arts Department at Episcopal has brought me closer to the importance of artistry in general. What I used to see as a moat between artists and the rest of us, first became a thin line and, now, has dissolved into a boundary-less, free flowing appreciation of the artistry of life in all of its forms.
As I deepen my focus on this concept, I have come to see the artistry of teachers, coaches and the rest of us on campus expressed in the caring necessary to help students develop well. Through the self-reinforcing stance of my colleagues, I see standards of academic rigor blending completely with student satisfaction in co-curricular activities from the English classroom to the stage and from the athletic field to the robotics lab and the ceramics studio to the Chapel. As the quote above from James Joyce implies, as our souls are “enriched with spiritual knowledge” the world around us becomes “one vast symmetrical expression of God’s power and love.”
In each of the past few years, the school has purchased three works of art from three students - - one from each division. These masterpieces, which are bargains for the school, now hang in the VPAC entry ways, reminding me that all Episcopal students are, in the narrow interpretation of the word, real artists. But, here is the broader motivating thought: Perhaps without thinking of it in just these terms, we are called not only to be artists of life ourselves, but to nurture each student to become the artist of his or her own life. I believe that, the more adults model artistry in their own lives, the more meaningful the students’ experiences at our school will be.
For most of us, art comes from rising above the ordinary and mundane to express a unique and significant point of view. Drawing it, saying it, doing it, making it, reacting to it in just the right way is part of artistry. Artistry changes with the artist. Art is cumulative with each piece building upon the past productions. Working on our lives, as an artist might work on a canvas or a song, allows our souls to be “enriched with spiritual knowledge,” that is both uplifting and rewarding. What more accurate description is there of our Episcopal School of Baton Rouge community?
Parents, students, teachers, coaches, “admins” (as people like me are so respectfully called), Board members, friends, donors, and alumni---please join me in embracing your own artistry. In particular, please join in helping our students become artists of their own lives. What a worthy cause!
And, guys, every now and then talk of love in public. It is okay.
Grant me the serenity to accept those things I cannot change, the Courage to change those things I can, and the Wisdom to know the difference.
“Concedeme la Serenidad para aceptar las cosas que no puedo cambiar, el Valor para cambiar las cosas que puedo cambiar y la Sabiduria para conocer la diferencia
Mary Spencer, Dean of Students
The clock on the wall in Mary Spencer’s office spells its numbers in Spanish--uno, dos, tres--a small nod to her background that began with much of her childhood--12 years--in South America. Spencer went on to major in Spanish and began her foray into education as a Spanish teacher. “I even dream in Spanish,” she says.
Spencer’s father eventually became the Episcopal Bishop of Colombia and Ecuador. She explains that this combination of “preacher’s kid” in a missionary family and living abroad has shaped the way she responds to others. “I’ve had people say that my ear, or my heart, or my mind is more in tune to nuance sometimes--that I tend to be a little more empathetic and listen for what people are trying to say, rather than what may be coming out of their mouth.” This empathy was likely also fostered by that early exposure to families living very different socioeconomic and cultural realities.
With an ear for language, Spencer is a listener. She values the connection that can only come from truly hearing someone, but she also quite literally detects subtleties in phonemic language itself. “I can tell if someone was raised in the Andes mountains or on the coast,” she notes. “It’s a part of who I am.”
Listen to this weeks episode of the Teachers' Lounge
Spencer also comes from a strong independent school tradition and background. While she did return soon after college to work as an administrator at her alma mater of Chatham Hall, an Episcopal boarding school in Virginia, she knew it was wise to experience work life outside academics. So, before resuming a career in education, Spencer did temp work which landed her in the home office of a large insurance company in Virginia. Here she installed the “mini-computer” in offices and trained brokers, agents and staff on how to use the computer system. “It gave me a different insight about what parents are juggling outside of a school setting,” she says.
Spencer later met and married her husband, Andy Spencer, Episcopal’s new Director of Advancement, and her career continued at the Virginia Episcopal School. She became the Director of Women’s Life, Spanish teacher and head coach for varsity field hockey and assisted with the basketball team. The school had recently become co-ed, and Spencer worked to make sure all voices were heard equally and that programming was representative of all students. In the midst of all of this, the couple’s children, Sarah Elizabeth (S.E), and George, were born and Spencer says that it was “almost idyllic to raise kids in a boarding school environment.”
The Lovett School eventually recruited Andy, and the family moved to Atlanta, where they remained for nineteen years. It wasn’t long after they settled that Spencer began subbing at Lovett and eventually moved into teaching and administrative roles. Here, she nurtured her approach and philosophy. “There is one ‘d’ in Dean,” she says. “Discipline is only one factor.” Spencer’s prior work with social-emotional learning inspires the majority of the way she approaches her role as Dean of Students. “Students are learning the skills to learn from their mistakes,” she says. She shares that she, herself, is flawed--we all are--and that “making mistakes doesn’t make you a bad person.” Spencer sees her role as one that first meets people where they are, one that offers and expects respect, and one that is both consistent and fair. “I’m not good at playing games,” Spencer comments. And while she is known to often use humor in her interactions with students, she finds sarcasm and discipline that puts a child down to be incredibly harmful.
It’s no wonder Spencer leads with empathy. Language research indicates that “Children in multilingual environments have social experiences that provide routine practice in considering the perspectives of others…” (Kinzler). And while Spanish is less and less a part of her daily interactions, Spencer’s ear for language and emphasis on clear communication is at the forefront of how she forges meaningful relationships with students.
“Why was it so easy for me to say yes to Episcopal?” she asks. From the outside looking in, Spencer witnessed a clear sense of community, an honor code that values living with character, and rituals and traditions that reinforce who we’re all striving to be.
Katie Sutcliffe is beginning her seventh year at Episcopal and has served in many capacities involving writing and service learning. Currently, she directs the Thesis Program, teaching both Seminar juniors and Thesis seniors, and is the co-creator of LAUNCH, Episcopal’s annual TEDx-style student-planned and executed showcase of ideas and projects. Katie’s own history involves this blend of service and writing: after graduating from a small liberal arts college in Indiana with an English degree, she moved to the Deep South with Teach For America where she taught middle school English and worked passionately on issues of educational inequity. She later earned an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from the University of Pittsburgh and returned to Baton Rouge where she has continued freelance writing. Katie infuses social justice initiatives into her curricula and seeks to help her students make meaningful connections with those living a different experience within our larger community. She’s passionate about character education and project-based learning, as well as research and writing that