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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We believe in laughter.

“We believe in laughter,” I said this morning to a few dozen prospective Durham Academy. parents. They came for our Upper School Tour and Information Session – invited by our able admissions team and eager to dive beneath the surface of our website, viewbook, reputation, and admissions statistics.

Some parents seemed surprised when I mentioned that laughter and its pals (joy, whimsy, happiness and surprise) are at the core of our mission and program. I do not exaggerate, for DA’s mission compels us to equip students for “moral, happy, productive” lives. While morality and productivity rarely surprise visitors to our campus, they are often struck by the smiles per hour and lighthearted rapport they witness here.

The positive psychology movement has revealed quite a bit about what makes us truly happy. Whether through simple hacks (expressing gratitude, hydrating, sleeping, excercising, meditating, etc.) or more fundamental shifts (toward relationships, meaning and purpose and accomplishment) we know the path to authentic happiness.

In the same vein, we now understand the integral links between happiness and learning. I recently read a terrific article titled “Stress and the Learning Brain.” The author, Ian Kelleher, teaches science at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Maryland and is the Associate Director for Research at the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning.

As I read through the factors that reduce stress and lead to what Kelleher calls “the thinking, reflective brain response,” I thought immediately of the classroom climate at DA. Our students enjoy coming to school because their teachers offer lots of the following:

  • Identity validation
  • Choice
  • Novelty
  • Humor, music
  • Being told a story or anecdote
  • Positive interactions with peers
  • Acting kindly
  • Movement
  • Optimism
  • Expressing gratitude
  • Making correct predictions
  • Achieving challenges

We sometimes fall short, of course, so it’s wise to see the enemy clearly. Kelleher lists the factors that cause stress and lead to a reactive “fight, flight, freeze” response in students:

  • Identity threat
  • Boredom
  • No personal relevance
  • Frustration of previous failures
  • Fear of being wrong if asked to speak in class
  • Fear of presenting work orally
  • Test taking anxiety
  • Physical, language, or dress differences
  • Feeling overwhelmed by workload and unable to organize time and respond to these demands.

As the days shorten and the temperatures drop, we will continue to strive toward happiness, reduce unhealthy stress and live out our belief in laughter. Whether that means goofy rap videos, Bojangles biscuits in advisory meetings, or a well-told joke in history class, we know that learning and joy are inextricably intertwined. 

Posted by mulkus on Tuesday December, 1, 2015


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