Heads Up

Welcome to Heads Up, a blogging experiment that aims to: 

  • connect the people, parts, and principles of Durham Academy;
  • share ideas about learning and human development;
  • spotlight a few of the many wondrous things I get to see every day at Durham Academy. 

Thanks for reading the posts below — and sending news, links and ideas worth sharing. 

Michael Ulku-SteinerHead of School 

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A report card on this year's three strategic portraits

As in schools across the nation, May at Durham Academy is chock full of final exams, culminating performances and closing ceremonies. In the same spirit, I’d like to share year-end updates on the three most significant schoolwide projects that DA tackled this year.

In a September blog post, I previewed each of these initiatives: 

  • A portrait of our future campuses
  • A portrait of our community
  • A portrait of the DA Graduate

In the summer edition of the Durham Academy magazine, we’ll share more detailed updates about each of these projects. Here and now: a brief overview of the ways we’ve pursued three key goals of our Strategic Plan and clarified our vision of DA in 2020 and beyond.

Portrait of our Campuses

In February I emailed the community about our …

Posted by mulkus on Monday May 22
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Go west, old man.


A few weeks ago I traveled with DA’s Alumni Relations Director Tim McKenna to Oakland and San Francisco for two full days of reconnecting with Bay Area Cavaliers. The trip was varied, delightful and – I hope, but you can be the judge – worth recounting.

After dropping our bags at our hotel near Fisherman’s Wharf (where the selfie sticks are as numerous as the aggressive gulls), we headed to Oakland for an afternoon with Steve Snider ’88, Jonathan Crawford ’10 and Christopher Crawford ’12.

Steve is the Executive Director of the Downtown Oakland Association, a not-for-profit organization funded by local property owners. He and his team work to attract new businesses, residents and visitors to a 55-block area – helping the neighborhoods …

Posted by mulkus on Monday March 20
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Our new Science and Humanities Center and a bold master plan

The last time Durham Academy dreamed this big was more than 20 years ago. Then, as now, we were responding to high demand that was causing admissions constraints: the school was at capacity, we weren’t able to serve as many deserving families as we wanted to, we were starting to lose the ability to keep families together, and we were being forced to balance those priorities with a long-standing commitment to increasing diversity.

DA’s then-Headmaster Don North identified enrollment management as the school’s No. 1 challenge. After grappling with the issue for a year and a half, Don and our Board of Trustees decided DA would grow rather than turn away qualified, deserving students, siblings, alumni children or students who enriched our community. The growth would not …

Posted by mulkus on Wednesday February 22 at 08:48AM
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Why do this?

Along with DA’s Associate Head of School Lee Hark, I recently completed teaching a first semester seminar for Upper Schoolers called “The Mission-Driven Life.” Though spring is on the horizon and the days growing longer, I have felt a distinct emptiness in recent weeks. The reasons are simple: I miss our students. I miss our conversations.

Durham Academy’s mission compels us to prepare young people for “moral, happy, productive lives.” For a number of intertwined reasons (see below), Lee and I decided last year to design and teach a course exploring the contributing factors, competing theories and necessary interdependence of morality, happiness and productivity.

Why do this?

  • We wanted to experiment with and model the kind of collaborative …
Posted by mulkus on Sunday January 29
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Remembering the wise and generous Dr. Brodie


Dear Durham Academy Community,

Today we were deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Dr. H. Keith H. Brodie, whose wise, compassionate, generous service to Duke University and Durham Academy helped form and elevate both institutions.  

A memorial service will be held at Duke Chapel at 4 p.m. Monday, Dec. 5.

Brodie, a professor emeritus of psychiatry, served as Duke’s seventh president, succeeding Terry Sanford. “Keith Brodie’s term as president of Duke from 1985 to 1993 saw the beginning of Duke’s rise to national recognition and reputation,” President Richard Brodhead said in a message to the Duke community today. “The initiatives Keith championed became signature qualities of Duke and remain part of our university’s values today, …

Posted by mulkus on Friday December 2, 2016 at 09:38PM
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Using our electricity for private and public good

Life in a school community that celebrates all facets of diversity (including the fullest range of political opinion) can be challenging. Today we found ourselves in a swirl of emotions and a poignant teachable moment.  

Whether students felt joy and celebration or fear and frustration, our goal today was the same as always: to create safe spaces for all our students to learn from adults and peers and grow into their fullest selves.

This election, despite the divisiveness and negativity of its rhetoric, does not shake our bedrock commitment to interpersonal respect. The final paragraph of our Statement of Philosophy provides useful guidance:

Durham Academy believes that enhancing the spirit of community among faculty, students and parents is essential to the …

Posted by mulkus on Wednesday November 9, 2016
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"Children believe in the power"

Two weeks ago, Duke Chapel hosted its annual Blessing of Animals. A few words from their website (the last line is priceless):

Duke Chapel has hosted a Blessing of Animals since 1989, a worship tradition made notable by the camels and other circus animals blessed each year at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. Last year, Duke Chapel ministers blessed animals ranging from hamsters to horses. *Please consider the wisdom of bringing aggressive animals.*

Two years ago, my mom recommended that I listen to The Writers Almanac, a 5-minute daily podcast by Garrison Keillor. I was quickly hooked – in part by the history lessons that start each segment and in part by the occasional poetic gems that shorten my commute and enlarge my soul.

Below is such a poem – one …

Posted by mulkus on Monday October 17, 2016 at 09:40AM
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Three portraits and the long view

As our most recent Strategic Plan makes plain, ours is a community that isn’t afraid to dream big, to aim high, to bite off more than can apparently be chewed by one organization at one time. I am glad and grateful — not to mention challenged and energized — that we aspire to such lasting and meaningful work.

We have now begun the second school year of our five-year plan. It would be fair to ask:

  • What have we accomplished?
  • What remains on our to-do list?
  • Where will we spend our most focused time and energy this year?

Many of the answers to the first two questions can be found in the summer issue of the Durham Academy magazine.

This issue, with its cover art by DA alumnus Alex Isley '80, was designed as something of a collectors’ edition — more than …

Posted by mulkus on Thursday September 29, 2016 at 09:58AM
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Our labor, refreshed and refocused by parent opinions

 Happy Labor Day!

Our youngest students have nearly two weeks of classes under their belts. Their elders spent a few days in class before heading out to the North Carolina coast, the Appalachian mountains or the Civil Rights landmarks of Greensboro, Atlanta, Selma and Birmingham (click here to see our experiential education trips for grades 5-12).

After a deep (and blissfully cool!) breath this weekend, we now buckle down – and buckle up for a full, fast, fall semester.

Labor Day offers a clean slate for resolutions and reinventions. In “September is Your Second-Chance January,” Melissa Dahl writes of the findings of researchers from Penn’s Wharton School regarding “temporal landmarks” and the useful opportunities they provide for fresh starts …

Posted by mulkus on Saturday September 3, 2016
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Seeing well beyond 2020

On Monday I spent some time with Durham Academy’s Class of 2020, the 9th graders who are continuing their orientation week now at Green River Preserve. I opened with a simple question:

       Why are you here?

Their answers began with astute cheekiness (“It’s the law.” . . . “My parents made me come”) and moved gradually toward earnestness (“I want to know how the Upper School works.” . . . “I want to go to a good college.” . . . “I’d like to learn all I can.”).

Aiming to push them from external and short-term reasons toward more internal and lasting rationales, I asked each student to answer some questions on an index card – a small “letter to self” that I will return …

Posted by mulkus on Wednesday August 31, 2016
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