The Commons: Our Blog

Timely, sometimes tough, questions and insights from NAES and Episcopal school leaders on leadership, governance, Episcopal identity, community life, and other issues.

Inquiry as a Core Value

I received a letter the other day—an actual paper letter in an envelope with a stamp and a handwritten address—from a grandparent. The letter was what is becoming a familiar form these days, a rant: multiple, detailed paragraphs not based on firsthand knowledge or fact, just a simple rant. As these things do—as was intended—it upset me, it got under my skin. The writer is an Episcopal priest, his grandchildren attend my school, an Episcopal School, yet, he claimed, they knew nothing about Christian holidays or practices: “my grandchildren can tell me about Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, the Celebration of Light, they know ‘jack’ about Christmas.”

There are so many assumptions built into this communication: that what he hears from his children and grandchildren is without bias and reflective of reality; that there is little value in understanding the wealth of human experience and difference; that there is one religion, and one set of beliefs more important than another. Of course we talk about Christmas and the season of light and giving, we are an Episcopal School. Just last night we had an absolutely magical Lessons and Carols, with students from all grades sharing their musical gifts and reading lessons. And, of course, we celebrate and talk about Kwanzaa and Hanukkah reflecting the rich diversity of our community.

I am glad this gentleman reached out to me, and I will respond. But the frustration I continue to carry is that he didn’t question, he didn’t ask, he didn’t wonder or inquire. Instead, on very little information he vented. One of the highest values we hold as a school—right there in our mission and direct from the Episcopal canon—is inquiry. We ask questions, we wonder, we find ways to inspire our thinking and our wondering through provocations like engagement in the natural world, or readings and lectures from different points of view, or experiencing art or listening to music. We do all of this, in order to change the way we think, the way we know—not to just reinforce our current world view. This is what a good, Episcopal school does.

Arundhati Roy, the novelist known for The God of Small Things wrote, back in early 2020 when 50,000 were dead from Covid worldwide, not 5 million: ‘The pandemic is a portal’ and asked, “What will you take with you through the portal and what will you choose to leave behind?”

What I hope we take with us is inquiry—a willingness and openness to ask questions, to wonder, to listen, to discern, to not assume we know; what I want to leave behind is the confidence that I know, the confidence there is one, right way and I am on it.

And then, as I compose my response, I realize, this grandfather is asking. He wrote because he is questioning and wondering: his grandchildren are growing up in a world he did not know. A world where everything he believed and stood for and fought for is now being questioned. He is wondering if they are getting the skills they need to navigate this complicated world, and whether they will remain connected and close to him as we all go through this portal. And so I will respond to the question he is asking and may not know he is asking.

In Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book, Braiding Sweetgrass, she writes: “a teacher comes, they say, when you are ready. And if you ignore its presence, it will speak more loudly. But you have to be quiet to hear.” This pandemic portal, and this grandfather, are such teachers.

Mo Copeland is Head of School at Oregon Episcopal School in Portland, OR.

Connections Between Chapel, Spirituality, and the Classroom

This is a quote from one 8th-grade boy who offered a homily on “Art and Spirituality” in our middle school chapel. Art has been a way for him to discover the gifts that God has endowed him with and to understand his relationship to God. This connection between spirituality and education is at the heart of Dr. Lisa Miller’s work at the Collaborative for Spirituality in Education based at Columbia Teachers College. Her research has encouraged me to find more ways to bring out the spiritual and religious dimensions of our students. One way in which we have done this at Campbell Hall is through our chapel program, where we are helping our students make connections between the subjects that interest them and their spiritual life. Read More »

God Makes Queer People, and It Is Good

Inspired by the NAES Statement on Inclusion and Episcopal Identity, I would like to describe our school’s vision of how Episcopal schools can play a unique and powerful role in the area of gender inclusivity. Many secular and Christian schools get this one wrong, so Episcopal schools are poised to play a crucial leadership role. Read More »

Thriving Through Interdependence

After we closed our school in March 2020, I did not return to my office in person until late April. After weeks of reinventing school as we know it and bringing a virtual platform to life from my kitchen, I was ready to go to my office to see if my plants were still alive and check in on our building. It was strange and sad to walk through the halls with no children and faculty in place. When in session, our school is normally bubbling with the sounds of joyful students from ages 3 to 11. The now eerie quiet added to my growing melancholy and malaise, feelings that were defining my early days and weeks of the Covid pandemic. After all, children are central to the work we do in leading our schools; in this new context, I was leading our community without their presence to guide me, and it left me hollow and searching. Read More »

Life Has Never Been Normal

I began teaching in the Fall of 2001. I was a 23-year-old graduate student, and with just about a week of training, I was thrown into a freshman English classroom to teach college writing to students not much younger than I was. So I had only been teaching a couple of weeks when the events of September 11, 2001 unfolded. Read More »

Where the Magic Happens!

When last school year commenced, I felt an unusually big relief. At that time it seemed as if we were getting ahead of the COVID 19 pandemic. Most of our school personnel had been vaccinated and many other states were following suit. I assumed that I would walk into the new school year with COVID in the rearview mirror. Read More »

Begin With Goodness

Begin with goodness. This is something of a mantra I use at the start of something new—a new morning, a new school year, a new class or faculty meeting, a new encounter with a colleague, student or stranger. Begin with goodness.  Read More »

The Excitement of a New Year

I remember very clearly the “roller coaster” of emotions that accompanied the start of a new school year (both as a student and a teacher). Feelings of eagerness and elation would give way to feelings of doom and despair as each precious day of summer vacation was crossed off of the calendar.  The whole roller coaster ride would repeat itself several times a week (sometimes, even more frequently). Although honestly, I was always more excited about the first day of school as an employee as opposed to my days as a student.  Read More »

Living the Questions and the Answers

What does it mean to be a religious school during a period of widespread religious illiteracy? I frequently ask myself variations of this question, and I think it’s a crucial one for leaders and members of Episcopal schools to productively wrestle with.   Read More »

The Mysterious Elsewhere

Frank Lloyd Wright once reflected, “I’ve been about the world a lot, and pretty much over the country, but I was totally unprepared for that revelation called the ‘Dakota Badlands.’ What I saw gave me an indescribable sense of mysterious elsewhere—a distant architecture, ethereal… an endless supernatural world more spiritual than earth but created out of it.” Many summers of life I spent working alongside the Oglala Lakota in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. As soon as the Badlands and other signs of entry to the reservation were in sight, I felt the world kind of fall away. What were essential—the moments for connection and relationship in a sacred place—took precedence and were the only things that mattered. Holy encounter met me. Read More »