Grey Matters
A weekly blog by RJ Grey's principal Andrew Shen

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October 2020 - Posts

Hi Everyone,

During the first week of our return to school I was definitely wondering how the lunch periods would look and feel given the new arrangements we had to utilize with individual desks spaced several feet apart from each other, and all facing the same direction.  I think I’ve previously mentioned that it was one of the more dystopian parts of our safety measures - and the silence and low energy that permeated the cafeteria those first few days made me a bit queasy.  I immediately reached out to our District’s tech team to ask about installing a projection system in the cafeteria with the idea that we might show episodes of popular shows or Pixar shorts as a way to soften the edges a bit and offer some entertainment.  While I am still working on installing a projection system, it’s been a relief to see and hear evidence of greater  comfort by the students during lunch.  Never thought I’d be wishing for louder lunches! There’s a noticeable increase in the chatter amongst students as they use the time to relax a bit and socialize.  We know that there are all sorts of ways that this year’s changes make it hard to connect with teachers and peers, and there continue to be plenty of moments each day where everyone is adapting and finding ways to cultivate new relationships.  I’m grateful for every day that we can include an in-person option and engage with the 325 students who join us at RJ Grey each day.  We also know that the fully remote option is one that many families feel has been the right choice for them, and we hope that the sense of community that our teachers are trying to build in an online setting has allowed those students and their families to feel included.  If there comes a point later this year where we have to shift the entire school to a fully remote model we will have benefited from both the connections we’ve made in person, and the routines and community-building that have evolved in the fully remote classes.  


Here are a few timely reminders before I make a very abrupt pivot to a posting I wrote last Fall that I’d like to re-share with new families.  


An important reminder to families who drive their children to school in the morning - we are adjusting 

our drop-off procedures starting tomorrow, Monday, October 26Please review this document to familiarize yourself with our plans.  


Here’s an announcement for 8th grade families interested in Minuteman High SchoolAre you the parent of a student who might want to attend Minuteman High School? Learn about our 19 career and technical education majors -- ranging from Automotive Technology and Electrical Wiring to Engineering and Biotechnology to Horticulture and Health Assisting. By joining a virtual parent info session, you will hear from some of our current parents and the experience they and their children have had while attending Minuteman. Join our virtual parent information session on the following dates to learn more: Thursday, November 5 at 7 pm (https://zoom.us/j/92754102549), or Wednesday, November 18, at 7:00 PM (https://zoom.us/j/92373137761

We have five parents/guardians of 7th grade students who are interested in serving on our School 

Council.  We have created an online ballot using a Google Form, and votes will be cast anonymously.  The form has the bios submitted by each of the candidates. Once you have reviewed the candidate bios, please select TWO of the candidates and submit your ballot. Please, only one ballot per parent/guardian.  The Form is open and will accept submissions through 5pm tomorrow (Monday).  Many thanks to the five parents/guardians who are putting themselves out there and volunteering to serve.  CLICK HERE FOR THE BALLOT 

 

Halloween Dress Up Day is this Thursday and Friday and we’re looking forward to the range of costumes that will likely enter the building.  Please remember that participation is completely optional and the rate of student (and teacher) participation is typically around 50%, so no student should feel compelled to come in a costume.  During any costume planning, please continue to help your child keep in mind that we must avoid including props that mimic weapons (swords, firearms, knives, etc.), clothing that includes profanity, and no masks besides their COVID-related mask!  It’s a great tradition, and we all look forward to a fun and spirited day.  We also encourage our fully remote students to participate online if it interests them.  


Ok - time for the abrupt pivot.  What I am including below is an updated version of something I sent to families last year about the prevalence of online pornography in the lives of adolescents.  For those of you whose oldest child is now in 7th grade, this may feel like throwing you into the deep end of the pool. However, the conversations that I had with several parents and community members after I sent it out last year affirmed for me the value of introducing this topic annually, even in a year where we clearly have plenty of other things to be managing. 

 

To enter this inherently uncomfortable topic, I am going to describe something I used to do when I myself was a middle schooler and never quite sure where it will land on the embarrassment scale.  In the home where I grew up, we didn’t have cable television until my late high school years.  Through my early teen years, along with the one family television in the living room, my mom had a small handheld black & white television that she kept in the kitchen.  Whenever I thought I could get away with it, I would swipe the handheld television and bring it to my room so I could watch, among other shows, episodes of Baywatch, the timeless television series about a team of lifeguards dedicated to saving lives while perpetually dressed in undersized swimwear.  This was before broadband so I had to figure out how to use some aluminum foil on the antennae to improve the reception in my room, though I don’t share this story as evidence of my ingenuity and problem-solving skills.  And to be clear, my interest in Baywatch as a 13-year old was not because I had become a loyal fan of American acting legend David Hasselhoff from his days on Knight Rider.  I offer this awkward personal story to all of you to break the ice and introduce the subject of internet pornography.  As my too-much-information Baywatch story speaks to, fascination with and curiosity about sex is certainly not a new aspect of adolescence.  For many teens it’s often one of the newer and interesting subjects to learn more about either on their own or with peers. Pornography is also not a new dimension of modern society, but what is fundamentally different is that access to it used to require at least some modicum of effort.  Now, anyone at any age with a smartphone can readily call it up at any time of the day for free. Please know that I continue to raise the issue of internet porn not with an interest in offering moral or legal commentary. While opinions about pornography in general may vary, I would be surprised if any of us thinks that guidance about sex and relationships for young adolescents should come courtesy of internet pornography.  And yet there is more evidence (including a growing collection of my own school principal anecdotes from recent years) that a portion of the informal education young people are receiving on this subject comes in the form of sexually explicit online material.  This exposure could skew not only their understanding of sexual activity, but also of the language and rituals involved with the things that are newer to them like flirtation, courtship, and dating. The material is sometimes stuff they discover on their own - either by accident or on purpose, or that’s shared with them by peers.  Even the most innocuous Google searches nowadays have the potential to generate results that include sites that are far from what an innocent 12-year old may have been intending.  Many studies find that adolescents encounter some form of online pornography around age 11, and move have seen it by the time they turn 18.  With this in mind, I want to suggest that though the idea of talking with our kids about things associated with sex can already be an uncomfortable one for many of us, you might need to strongly consider how you will also fold information about internet porn into those conversations.  


Last year, I was planning to wait until later in the year to share this posting so new families would get to know more about me before I potentially traumatized them.  I accelerated the timing mostly because an article that I had recently come across by Kate Rope in the Washington Post called, “A scared parent’s guide to those awkward (but necessary) conversations about Internet porn, and is the one I have used to help me prepare for the conversation I have attempted to have with my own kids. The author of this article does a really nice job framing the issue in easy-to-access language, and offers practical suggestions for how to approach a conversation with your kids.  She reminds us that the conversation doesn’t have to be perfect, nor particularly lengthy, to be effective and provide entry points for future conversations. While this particular piece was my first foray into raising the issue of internet porn, it was two years ago that I brought up the growing complexity around the broader conversations we need to consider having with our kids about romance, sex, consent and healthy relationships.  Two years ago, the inspiration was the heavy media coverage of the nomination hearings for then-Supreme Court candidate Brett Kavanaugh.  At that time, I noted that the larger public discourse could be viewed as an opportunity for families to provide direct guidance about the power and impact of certain words and behaviors, and clear explanations about what ethical, kind, and respectful behavior looks like.  I’ve heard from some parents and guardians that the conversations they’ve had on those subjects sometimes offer natural opportunites to introduce messaging about internet pornography and how that material might collide and conflict with their family’s ideas around respectful and healthy relationships, and appropriate expectations.  To assist families who were interested last year in these conversations, I introduced them to the organization Making Caring Common, an initiative based at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education that is dedicated to “helping educators, parents and communities raise children who are caring and responsible to their communities.”  As part of that introduction I included this brief article by Dr. Richard Weissbourd.  Focusing specifically on sexual harassment and misogyny this piece offers parents strategies for inviting their children into a conversation that can be tricky to initiate.  Making Caring Common also has a resource page entitled, “Teens and Ethical Romantic Relationships” that includes several resources, handouts and guides for parents and schools who want to help adolescents develop comfort and skill in establishing healthy relationships with peers, romantic or otherwise.  To be sure, not all of what is included may fully resonate with you, but perhaps it offers you some materials that are useful. Even if this week’s Grey Matters has thrown you for a loop or been a bit jarring in terms of the subject, I hope that it continues to be received by all of you with a clear sense of the good intentions and goals that motivated me to write it.  


Have a great week, everyone. 


Cheers, 

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Posted by ashen  On Oct 25, 2020 at 3:03 PM
  

Hi Everyone,

Our family wasn’t really up for an apple picking adventure this year, but that doesn’t mean we weren’t interested in apple cider donuts.  So my son Parker and I decided to make what we imagined would be a brief trip to one of the local orchards to pick up some donuts, and maybe a pumpkin and caramel apple.  I should have realized ahead of time that the perfect weather meant that going to the orchard at 2pm meant that many others would have the same idea.  We still managed to get what we came for, but had to wait in a fairly long line.  That line for cider donuts was the first time in a while I had been in such a public setting, other than school, and I noticed the wide range of behaviors and choices that individuals were making in terms of distancing, mask wearing, and general interactions.  Since the line was long, I had plenty of time to make observations and also think about how things are going inside RJ Grey, and feeling quite good about our students’ responsiveness to the protocols and guidelines that they are being asked to follow each day.  It may or may not be a surprise to some, our students have been extremely cooperative and respectful of the safety measures in place at school. There is an understanding about the need to keep masks on and nary an attempt to flout the rules.  We’re all social beings, and so there of course are moments in the day where a student is excited to see a friend and might briefly sidle up to them to say hello. But overall, we’re impressed with how students have adjusted and are responsive to our reminders.  Seeing rows of students sitting at individual desks for lunch is definitely a bit dystopian, and the kids have taken it in stride and making the best of a less than ideal set of circumstances.  Many thanks to the messaging that many parents and guardians have given, and continue to provide, around the importance of these safety measures. 


As each of us continues to try and get a handle on all of the information about COVID, its impact on communities, effective strategies to mitigate exposure, and the trajectory of efforts to find a vaccine, I wanted to share one resource that I have found pretty helpful.  COVID-EXPLAINED is a team of researchers with different areas of expertise who are collaborating to process information and share explanation and guidance in ways that provide context to readers.  I learned about COVID-EXPLAINED because of Emily Oster’s involvement in the group.  Emily Oster is an Economist at Brown University who I started to follow a few months ago, and have taken a liking to her postings.  Some of you might already know about Emily Oster based on her publications around pregnancy and early childhood parenting.  She has written a few books that use her training as an economist to explore common parenting questions like co-sleeping and potty training.  Since COVID, she’s shifted a lot of her attention to providing an analysis of the ongoing firehose of COVID-related data that gets thrown at all of us, and she does it in a way that I find easier to digest, partially due to an appropriate dose of humor and humility in her writing.  She writes a twice-weekly newsletter that is making me feel guilty given my shift to every other week.  If you’re someone who might be interested in hearing another voice around parenting in a COVID environment, you may want to see if Dr. Oster’s approach is helpful for you.  


Here’s a few updates and reminders to keep in mind: 


There is no school this Friday (October 9) for Professional Learning, and no school the following Monday (October 12) for Indigenous People’s Day.  For this week’s schedule, that means that Wednesday is now a Gold Cohort Day.  You can always review calendar information for the year by going to this part of our Transition website.  


I want to remind all families that we will continue to have Parent-Team Meeting times available throughout the year.  Parent-Team meetings are 20-minute sessions where parents/guardians can meet with all of their child’s team teachers and counselor to hear updates, discuss questions and observations, and address concerns.  At times the team may reach out and request a team meeting with a child’s parent/guardian.  Also, the parent/guardian can request a team meeting.  If you want to request a team meeting, please call Lena Jarostchuk in the Counseling Office (978-264-4700, x3330).  All meetings this year will be online using Zoom.  


Now that we’ve entered October, it’s probably not too early to mention Halloween.  I don’t know what guidance the town will provide around trick or treating plans. At RJ Grey, we are interested in finding ways to continue the tradition of students coming to school in costume (if they want to).  For those new to RJ Grey, the annual Dress Up Day is solely about costumes and no “trick or treating” - and we’re pretty sure we can allow for this while still honoring safety protocols.  We also think this is something where fully remote students can also attend class in costume and be part of the festivities and the friendly costume competition that we hold.  In a week or two I’ll send more specific details about our plans.  


Finally, this year’s every-other-week plan for Grey Matters has me re-adjusting when I include topics and messaging that have become annual traditions - either as reminders for returning families, or introductions for new families.  Below is something I’ve included over the past few years around pronunciation of names, and that I would have normally pushed out much closer to the start of the school year - but still an important message to share despite being the first week in October.  


Each year I mention how members of our Main Office staff intentionally and playfully address me as “Dr. Chen” which combines two very common mistakes that are made about my name and/or how to address me in conversation and emails. You are all more than welcome to continue bestowing the title of “Dr.” upon me, but please know that it’s not one that I’ve earned through any accredited program. As for what you might call me instead? I am happy to be addressed by my first name (Andrew), and also perfectly comfortable with Mr. Shen for those who prefer to maintain some formality.  I would also like to use this moment to provide a gentle note of clarification about my last name -- Shen -- which has throughout my lifetime often been confused for Chen (with a "Ch"), another Chinese-American surname that perhaps is a bit more common and familiar to many in this area.  I bring this up annually not only as a point of information about my name, but with the intention of bringing up our school’s commitment to pronouncing all of your names correctly. If and when we cross paths and introduce ourselves (appropriately distanced, of course), I hope that you’ll provide me with some guidance if I don’t pronounce your name correctly and help me get it right.  My hope is that those interactions will be similar to the efforts that our teachers make to learn the preferences, and the correct pronunciation, of your childrens’ names.  As a school we want to promote the idea that pronouncing names correctly can be an important part of helping each person feel welcome and seen, be it here at school or anywhere else.  Last year I was sent an op-ed in TeenVogue on this very topic by artist N’Jameh Camara who encourages us to shift our language around names less familiar to us from “hard” or “difficult” to “unpracticed”.  I particularly liked this portion of her essay:  


I know my name isn’t fully practiced in the U.S, so I have no problem teaching it. I, too, have struggled to learn names that are unpracticed to me. But as a person who was taught to respect and say Tchaikovsky, Brecht, Chekhov, Stanislavski and Hammerstein, I know my name can be learned too. What matters most is that we see ourselves as people whose vulnerability and mistake-making hold the potential to bring us closer.


To that end our hope at RJ Grey is to normalize the act of asking for a bit of guidance or confirmation about whether we pronounced a name correctly, and that students might also adopt that same practice. 


Have a great week, everyone.  Remember, no school this Friday (October 9) or the following Monday (October 12).  


Cheers, 

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Posted by ashen  On Oct 04, 2020 at 8:40 AM
  
 
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