An independent K-12 school on a beautiful wooded campus, 3 miles from Washington, DC

Robert von Glahn

Teaching and learning can happen anywhere. Whether it is finding new ways to stretch my students’ understanding and appreciation for history, challenging student leaders to think about an adaptive problem differently or helping an offensive lineman adjust his technique, I find deep satisfaction working and collaborating with students to solve problems and squeeze lessons out of their experiences. I am fortunate to be working at Potomac, a place that encourages these rewarding experiences.

Robert von glahn
Grades 11 & 12 Dean and Academic Dean
and Upper School History Teacher

Fake news is nothing new. In fact, some of our country's most significant and important events were, in part, shaped by what we could consider fake news. The hysteria of the Salem Witch trials was spurred by rumor and church endorsed reports of witchcraft. Many patriots of the American Revolution were inspired by Paul Revere's deeply biased and partly inaccurate depiction of the Boston Massacre. The political campaigns of some of our earliest and most esteemed presidents, men like Adams and Jefferson, were rife with sensationalistic lies about the character of their political opponents. The Mexican War and the War of 1898 were both motivated in large part by untruths spread by, in the case of the Mexican War, President Polk, and largely by the press and their political allies later in 1898. Cleary, incendiary, biased, and flatly inaccurate information has always had a place in American--and certainly human--history, and has had a significant impact on momentous events that would shape the future.

If fake news has always been a part of the human experience and has so clearly shaped our nation's past and present, why be so concerned about the phenomenon now? Is there anything different about the use and spread of inaccurate, heavily biased, or overly sensationalistic information by the press, politicians, and political commentators today? To answer that question, we need not look any further than the length our arm. The spread of online news platforms and the integration of news with social media feeds has changed the way we consume information and increasingly changed the way that information is gathered and reported upon. Instead of taking time to read thoroughly and thoughtfully, consumers of news often find themselves catching up on events while sitting at red lights, on noisy trains during a hectic commute, or while brushing their teeth at the end of the day. We consume news while doing other things and rarely take the time to deeply consider what we are reading, its purpose, the author, the intended audience, or the biases hidden in plain sight. Fake news and half-truths spread for political gain aren't anything new, but we are consuming this information in an environment primed for its spread: we read fast, we read distracted, we read with unconsidered emotion, and we share the stories that give us the most immediate validation of our own feelings and preconceived notions of the truth.

As educators, we have a responsibility to prepare our students to successfully navigate this new reality and live principled lives as informed citizens. A recent Stanford Graduate School of Education study measuring, among other things, students' ability to judge the credibility of sources, author or source bias, and overall trustworthiness of news articles, found that middle and high school students are unprepared for the challenges posed by "fake news" and lacking in the core skills to evaluate the information they find online and in social media. Preparing students to successfully navigate current media requires that we train students to read critically, consider multiple points of view, and consider central questions and understand the context of events.

In short, recognizing "fake news" and navigating the information overload available on social media and online requires core skills acquired in school. Various universities and citizenship advocacy organizations have recognized this need and have since develop curriculum packages devoted to training students to "read like a historian," as one such group at Stanford states.

At Potomac, we attempt to embrace this goal in all of our classes. By focusing not just on content acquisition but also on skill development and critical thinking, we hope to empower our students to be intrinsically curious and thoughtful consumers of information. Students engage in research, close reading activities, and primary source analysis in the humanities. In science and math, students explore multiple solutions, regularly engage in lab work, and learn to work collaboratively. Overall, we try to support a curriculum that supports critical and creative thinking, through including multiple perspectives in our curriculum and pedagogy that gives students opportunities to assess information and develop their own conclusions. When I explore materials that are being offered to teachers online that aim to help students more thoughtfully consume media, I am happy to see lessons similar to what we have long aimed to achieve in Potomac classrooms. Recent discussions of fake news and outright lies in politics and the media remind us the importance of developing habits of critical thinking and civil discourse in our students. Potomac's philosophy and core values reflect our commitment to these skills. We should remember the broader significance of these values in the daily choices we make as educators if we aim to develop empowered and civically committed citizens.

I wasn't sure what I would find when I came to school on November 9. The 2016 campaign and subsequent election had been a polarizing and often discouraging event. Racism, bigotry, sexism, cynicism, and corruption had replaced the themes of hope, optimism, cooperation, and progress that were present in recent presidential elections. I have come to appreciate the political awareness of many of my students and the knowledge and passion they bring to political discussions, but where would this passion lead us after the election? I entered the Upper School that morning hoping for the best but ready for the worst.

What I found in my students, colleagues, and community on November 9 and the days since has made me immensely proud. In navigating the important issues brought to light in the campaign and election, students from each side of the political spectrum have been sensitive to the feelings of their classmates and demonstrated humility and mutual respect for one another. When there have been misunderstandings, our students have shown the initiative and leadership to address these concerns in an attempt to build mutual understanding. On the morning after the election, there was no gloating by Trump supporters, and no lashing out with anger from Clinton supporters. In our classes, students openly discussed what they feel the results of the election mean and how they were experiencing the event. Students and faculty supported one another and engaged in respectful, civil discourse. Students and faculty who felt threatened by the results or expressed anxiety about the future of the country and their place in it felt free to express these fears and were ultimately affirmed as full members of our community.

The following day, I noticed a note written on the board in our student-run writing center under the heading "Thought from November 9." On the board, a student had written an excerpt from the Emily Dickenson poem "Hope is the Thing with Feathers."

"Hope" is the thing with feathers -

That perches in the soul -

And sings the tune without the words -

And never stops - at all -

What I had observed in my school over the two days following the election and throughout the entire 2016 campaign was confirmed with these words. I shouldn't have been surprised, of course. As a history teacher, I have felt that I have the responsibility to give my students a forum from which to safely explore topics important to them, including politics and the recent election. This fall, in AP US History, for example, we have been able to use moments from the campaign, and ultimately the election itself, to help explore important historical events, themes, and questions and use them to better understand what we saw happening in our country. Historical events from the first two months of the curriculum like the Alien and Naturalization Acts, the Election of 1800, the rise of Andrew Jackson, and the emergence of nativism have all been important moments for my students this fall in providing context for political topics and moments from the recent campaign and subsequent election. In examining these historical events and engaging in open, informed, and honest dialogue in all of their classes, our students have practiced the important work of democracy. No matter what the topic, we owe it to our students to maintain our shared values and, above all, respect courageous and honest dialogue as a backbone of any strong and resilient community.

In reflecting upon these observations, three lessons or ingredients for success in schools come to mind. First, students need to be exposed to and given the opportunity to face the facts of our nation's history. With understanding and context, students should then be allowed wrestle with difficult topics that are relevant to their lives. Related to this goal is a second lesson: we need to have the courage to disagree with each other respectfully if we are going to function in a democracy and ultimately engage in and bring life to our political, social, and cultural institutions. Lastly, we need to practice democracy in our classrooms, in the hallways, on stage, and on the fields. This means giving students a voice and a leading role in strengthening our community. Through the acquisition of knowledge and skills, learning habits of respect and civility with those we disagree with, and practicing autonomy, decision-making, and leadership, students can learn to become active and responsible citizens and support the continued the intellectual, moral, emotional, and social growth of every student. The work of our students in the wake of the 2016 election has given me hope—hope in our democracy, our country, and the future. Where adults from all parts of the political spectrum have disappointed us, the young people of America can show us how to be resilient in our beliefs and refuse to accept less than our absolute best, while maintaining civility and mutual respect for our differences.

Schools run on their own timelines and schedules. We begin in the fall, a time generally associated with the harvest: a time to reap the bounty of a year's hard work. We end at the conclusion of spring: a time of rebirth and new beginnings. It is at this time of new possibilities that teachers and students find themselves looking forward to a new year, but also reminiscing on the past year, progress made, and opportunities missed. In schools, spring is the time when teachers and students begin to bring in the harvest of the hard work we began in September.

As I look back on our harvest for the year, a recurring theme comes to mind: service. This year we revamped our community service program, pivoting to a service learning model. Our students engaged in meaningful conversations and are actively imagining and developing projects that both serve our broader community and have personal meaning to them. Giving of oneself requires personal reflection and consideration of the impact of your actions. Potomac's fresh approach to service this spring has given us a new opportunity for reflection and has shifted our approach from stand-alone service events, to a model of service that inspires engagement and learning.

As a dean in the Upper School, I have the opportunity to work directly with student leaders and to help guide and support their leadership of the school. Reflecting back on the work of our students in these leadership roles, I see a model of leadership focused on service to the Potomac community and not purely on personal goals or recognition. A number of examples immediately come to mind: A group of our seniors worked with our Alumni Office to develop and execute the first career day in the Upper School. Student run clubs brought a variety of events to the school to both support their clubs, and to give back to the community and create new learning opportunities for students and faculty. Student Government tirelessly worked to give the student body a stronger voice and communicate the thoughts and needs of the student body to the administration and faculty. The Honor Council examined the possibility of developing a school honor code to support our Core Values and visited peer schools to talk to students and faculty about their honor codes in an attempt to learn best practices and share those with the school administration. There are countless other examples to point to, all of which demonstrate the spirit of service that lives in our student body. Leadership at Potomac is not about accolades or titles. Our students show us every day that leadership is about serving others and making the community stronger.

This message of service came across loud and clear this spring when Congressman John Lewis visited the school. In his address to the student body, Congressman Lewis demonstrated the humility, courage, and generosity of spirit are at the core of service leadership. Our students and faculty were moved not only by Congressman Lewis's story and its historical significance, but by his message of love, compassion, and selflessness. In Congressman Lewis we have a clear model of service and leadership for our community to attempt to live up to. Based on what I saw in our faculty and students this past year, I am confident that we will continue to value meaningful service and positive, generous engagement in the community.

On September 20, 1940, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave an address at the University of Pennsylvania. The United States was not yet at war, but full-scale war had broken out in Europe and the Pacific, with fascism marching forward, seemingly unopposed across the globe. This was a time of great anxiety and fear. The United States had not fully crawled out of the Great Depression and the world had seemingly fallen into inescapable conflict. Clearly, challenging times were ahead.

In this context of fear and anxiety, Roosevelt spoke to the purpose of education and the role that education can play to prepare us to face challenges. Tested by what he called “the fire of history” our culture and way of life required the training of our youth to meet the challenges of the future by improving our institutions and building a resilient society. Facing uncertain times, Roosevelt reminded the crowd that “we cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.”

Recent discussions in our country about incorporating 21st century skills, character education, STEM education and the like are all answers to the call that President Roosevelt posed while we stood on the brink of World War II. As educators, we imagine the challenges of the future and are constantly adjusting our approach to education to meet these sifting and somewhat undefined goals.

At Potomac, we are continuing to define what it is students will need when they enter college, professional life, and beyond. Increasingly, the message we are getting from colleges, alumni, and community and business leaders is that we need to be producing student who can think, innovate, communicate effectively, and are morally and ethically equipped to live in a rapidly changing and diverse world. With an eye to this future, faculty have been creating innovative approaches that protect what we do well, but also stretches our students in new ways. In the Upper School, this work is underway in a number of areas. We have connected students with recent alumni through assemblies and our first career day in an attempt to expose students to the realities and demands of life after Potomac. Teachers have purposefully set out to incorporate natural and meaningful discussion of Core Values in our curriculum. Aileen Hawkins and Brett Sparrgrove have worked to create an interdisciplinary course aimed at teaching innovation and entrepreneurship to seniors. Leadership and life skills are being integrated into existing extracurricular programs like class trips, student retreats, students clubs, and service learning opportunities. We also continue to build on our approach to providing a rigorous, well-rounded, liberal arts education focused on building critical thinking and problem-solving skills across the curriculum.

While we may not be able to create the future we dream of for our students, we can influence the habits and skills that our students possess. Our continued commitment to instilling critical thinking and problem-solving skills in our students and creating an innovative and flexible program, are equipping our students to be productive, happy, and successful members of an uncertain future.

It is rare to hear good news about coaches. All too often we hear of professional, college, high school, and even youth coaches cheating, abusing players, fighting with officials, and generally valuing winning and personal success over integrity and sportsmanship.

Last spring, in the midst of an unfortunate incident at the University of Oklahoma, we got to see a glimpse of the kind of positive impact coaches can make, even in the win-at-all-costs world of major college football. Where other coaches may have avoided the controversy as a “distraction” to his players, Bob Stoops, the longtime and highly successful football coach of the Sooners, cancelled spring practice and was seen leading and supporting his players, dressed in black, in protest of racist chants at a fraternity that were recorded and then publicized over social media. The brief media attention paid to the incident revealed a coach encouraging and supporting his players speaking out against injustice over social media, and to holding their community to a high standard.

As a lifelong fan of Oklahoma football, I was proud to see the Sooners, particularly linebacker Eric Striker and coach Bob Stoops attempt to lead the university and the college football community in general in a conversation about race. This was a coach teaching his players not just to be successful on the field, but to live lives of significance off of it and to use their power and influence in service to the greater good.

At Potomac, I am proud to call myself a coach and to work with and support all of our coaches. Our coaches are competitive people who want to win, but they are also remarkable educators teaching positive lifelong lessons and habits.

Within a competitive framework, our coaches teach our core values, the importance of commitment, habits of hard work, and authentic self-esteem. Often, we don’t see or appreciate all that our coaches do, but as the dean of the 11th and 12th grades, I see the impact they make every day.

At our August leadership retreat, I ask students to cite examples of effective leadership, strong communities, and service to others. Inevitably, the examples that first come to their minds are of their coaches and the teams that those coaches help to shape. When I have conversations about their values, students inevitably cite lessons learned from coaches. They talk about life-long lessons and habits from Coach Bordley, Coach Dwyer, Coach Franklin and others.

At Potomac, we are lucky to have such extraordinary educators teaching our students the skills they need to compete at a high level, as well as the necessary lessons for not just successful, but significant lives. It was encouraging to see the national media pay Bob Stoops the attention he deserves for the important lessons he is helping his collegiate players learn; I hope that we can similarly appreciate the work of our Potomac coaches in educating our students-athletes.