We know you’re curious. As media shift formats, position themselves on different platforms, eke out different style (and audience) niches, what is the status of the Milton Measure and the Milton Paper?
Working on the student newspapers at Milton generates abiding memories. Milton reporters and editors have chosen all kinds of careers over the years, but few—especially among the editors—forget the days when, under the pressure of tight deadlines, they kept other students and faculty informed, provoked and entertained.
Many aspects of life in the Fourth Estate are familiar and highly resonant. Digitization of our world, however, changes some of the fundamentals involved in discerning and publishing “the news.”
We have rendered the highlights from a revealing conversation with this year’s editors in chief:
John Albright ’19 and Andrew D’Ambrosio ’19, editors in chief, the Milton Measure
Rishi Dhir ’19 and Pierce Wilson ’19, editors in chief, the Milton Paper
A “kind of organic” next step if you love to write
All four editors do love to write. John loves politics and started in Class IV writing “politically charged articles” for the opinion section, before he “began the whole journey, becoming section editor, opinion editor, then applying for editor in chief.” Andrew came from the sports writing genre. He loved going to games, interviewing classmates about their games, and writing articles weekly. He learned how sensitive and challenging writing about athletes and competition can be. Rishi had written what he calls “straightforward, factual stories” for two years, but a summer writing program at the New England Center for Investigative Reporting powered up his interest and his skills. He learned “how to investigate and how to interview,” Rishi says, “skills that apply to my history papers and so many aspects of my writing here.” Pierce, who came to Milton as a robotics and science Olympiad team member, got a D- on his first Milton English paper. “I was committed to trying harder at writing, and then I really got into writing and English,” he says. He credits his English course, Perspectives, and his teacher, Ms. Dukuly, who relentlessly expected him to reach for the inherent complexity of things. “Any story, any person, can be more complicated if you’re willing to put in the time to look for the nuance,” Pierce says.
Writing apart from something for class is rewarding. The “generic analytical essay” is important, John explains, “but there’s an appeal to being able to write in a different format about something you actually care about and know about.”
It’s a way to learn a lot more. Writing an opinion article, for instance, involves digging into a subject. “I wanted to write about the Electoral College,” John remembers, “and that forced me to research a ton. I learned, and now I can speak about it. It was definitely a rewarding experience.”
Content that is broad and balanced, if possible
Ideally, the editors say, their papers strive for a balance: national, state and local, and Milton news. Reporting about Milton sometimes requires a certain creativity, however, because breaking news happens, but not consistently. Pierce’s example of a great instance of creativity is when the Paper writer Sarah Palmer ’20 interviewed 10 math teachers and then reported about their teaching styles and strategies. He also points to the Paper’s new “spotlight team,” led by its news managers, who are trying to do long-term investigative reporting over a month and then publish their work.
All the editors try hard to seek out different student and faculty voices, in stories and for quotations. Sharing opinions, through comments and especially through writing, requires a risk assessment if you’re in high school. That’s especially true if your opinion is outside the Milton mainstream, or you’re simply not confident about submitting your own writing.
The editors find that humor and opinion take the most work. Rishi says, “You are factoring in having to write things that are actually funny and relevant to Milton but don’t upset anyone—at that point you have a very, very small box in which you can operate. That’s not saying you can’t generate funny things. You can. But it’s a difficult balance to maintain.” Work with student humor writers is always challenging and time-consuming, the editors agree. The combined Measure/Paper annual humor issue the Shallot is always an exercise in learning the difference between what student and adult readers think is funny and what they don’t.
Given a green light to express their opinions in their columns, Milton writers will do just that. The editors’ task is to help their writers generate ideas for opinions that are outside favorite student themes such as gender, race, what “Dare to be true” really means, and student workload, and to help them see and research the complicated truth just under the surface of an idea. Pierce notes that they ask Milton Paper opinion editors to meet with the opinion writers once a month, to discuss ideas and how to write a piece that offers a different perspective if the issue has been written about before. They have an official guide to opinion—“like a style book,” he says, “that was created about 10 years ago.”
The job’s challenges are predictable and call for new skills
“Getting and keeping people motivated and bought-in to what we’re trying to do,” says Andrew, “when they’re technically volunteers and newer writers who might have lower positions” demands attention and creative strategies.
“We need to help people feel like they’re part of something,” Pierce says. He recalls the power of an “incredibly nice” email of encouragement he got from Paper editors when, as a new writer, he completed a difficult article that provoked reaction on campus. “It’s such a transformative moment to get acknowledged by a senior,” he says. The Paper now sends “shout-outs” to highlight great work by their staff—not quite weekly, but enough to maintain the practice.
“We’re trying to make it feel like a club where everyone feels involved,” says Pierce. “We now offer office hours where writers can stop by, ask questions, and get feedback on their articles.” He doesn’t want people to feel that they send an article off to some “mystical place,” and a week later, it comes out with something changed, a different title, and their name on it.
All the editors feel community pressure: “If the article provokes controversy or there’s a mistake, it reflects on the board,” Andrew says. Ultimately, they agree, their readers are tough critics.
Students on the two editorial boards work intensely together—hours and hours over weeks and months. They have different styles and points of view. Learning how to disagree, how to value your teammates, how to keep your eye on the target, is crucial when you spend so much time together.
From the assignment to the printed page
As Andrew notes, “Journalism is a completely different form of writing than the academic writing that is students’ day-to-day experience.” Helping their writers to base their articles on facts and to be precise is a core task, and the two papers use various techniques. John says, “When we send out article assignments we tell writers to vary the sources of their information and to include quotes from students.” Andrew says that their routine process involves sending feedback along the way.
Pierce says his board is trying to give more comprehensive feedback. “On every round we like to give three rounds of editing. We start with box one, which is structural edits: Does it make sense? Is it factually accurate? Does it flow? Box two is grammar and mechanics, syntax, sentence style and variety. The third round is copy edits. We’re asking editors to leave comments at the bottom of each article after every round, and then the section editor who’s responsible for that writer sends them a typed-up paragraph of all the feedback they got that week. That’s less work for us in the long run, and less work for next year’s board, because they’ll have writers who’ve had feedback. Also, there’s more constant communication.”
Pierce is proud of a time when an article from a student was “factually incorrect, structure was awful, and historically inaccurate.” Two of his editors worked with the student over three weeks (it wasn’t time-sensitive), and the article was ultimately printed.
Paying the bills
A big difference between the two competing papers is money. As the “official” student newspaper, the Milton Measure has a budget provided by the School, which covers printing and other miscellaneous costs. Its faculty advisor pays the bills. But the Milton Paper is on its own when it comes to resources. The lack of funds gives the Paper some cred as an “independent” publication, but Pierce and Rishi must constantly think about how they are going to pay to print it. “Because we are always broke, we feel we have more liberty, in a way, and there’s some self-righteousness in students who are on the Paper, for better or for worse,” says Pierce. Fundraising is an important role for Paper editors, with Parents’ Weekend and Graduation the two biggest times of the year for raising money. They also have alumni and parent print and digital subscribers (www.themiltonpaper.com). The Milton Measure is able to offer its website without charge (www.themiltonmeasure.org) and send out free electronic copies upon request.
Today’s ways to stay current: the papers play a role
Most adults struggle to stay abreast, to know what’s important—from politics and economics through science, arts and humor, the best teams, the latest films, the most outrageous posts on social media. Students carrying a Milton course load, playing a sport or performing, applying to college, tending to friends and family and grabbing a little sleep, also feel like they’re trying to catch up with the flow.
Digitization, they all feel, helps with this problem. The upside of the firehouse of “notifications” and headlines from media, Twitter commentary, Snapchat messages and Instagram posts that inundate them is that they catch the drift without being weighed down in text and can then go for depth when and if they choose. But it’s also valuable that there are still two student print newspapers, hand distributed by student news staff on Fridays, in the student center, during the rush at recess. Many students immediately flip to the back covers to read the humor page or flip open the first page to read the editorials. Later, after the papers are stuffed into backpacks or strewn across Harkness tables, students can take the time to read through what their peers think about current issues, or how the girls’ basketball team’s season is going, or what movie is worth seeing. At Milton, print is not dead; it’s still a vibrant part of student life.
by Cathleen Everett and Liz Matson
The beginnings . . .
Originally published under the name the Milton Orange and Blue, the first issue of what today is the Milton Measure, appeared on Friday, November 16, 1894. “The object of this paper, besides being a source of information to those interested in the Academy, is to bind together former scholars by keeping them informed as to what is going on at Milton,” the new editors wrote. Those early years focused heavily on athletics with extensive game recaps. By the 1940s, the Orange and Blue was a full-fledged newspaper covering students serving in WWII, curriculum changes, “record enrollment,” the School’s 150th anniversary, and the ascension of Mr. Arthur Perry to the headmaster’s role. Sometime in the 1970s, there was a shift, and for a few years, students from the Boys School and the Girls School published the Milton Bi-Weekly under the leadership of Phil Tegeler ’73 and Vicky Boughton ’73. The Bi-Weekly faded away, and then the first issue of the Milton Measure was published, with Robert Potter ’78 as editor. Headlines read “Milton’s on Construction Binge” and “Dare to be True?”
The very first issue of the Milton Paper appeared one year later on October 15, 1979, with front-page stories covering new disciplinary procedures and the trustees’ announcement of a new campaign to double endowment. The editors were David Roth ’81, Ryck Birch ’81 and Jones Walsh ’82. “We’ve started this paper because we feel there should be an uncensored student forum at Milton Academy.” However, the Paper went into a hiatus after that inaugural year until a “rebirth” on September 16, 1983, under the leadership of Mark Denneen ’84, who wrote “While comparisons to the Measure are inevitable, we hope to augment, not replace, the Measure.”
Every Wednesday around lunchtime, energetic Middle School students pack into a math classroom in the basement of Ware Hall, snag slices of pizza, and settle into clusters. After casual chatter dies down, the conversation turns considerably deeper, as the sixth, seventh and eighth graders tackle major social issues in a moderated discussion.
“It might seem like having these deep conversations with other Middle School students is a silly idea, but I’m always leaving CAFE (Cultural Awareness for Everyone) with new knowledge and understanding of others’ opinions. It’s taught me that there are multiple sides to every story, and almost nothing is black-and-white,” says Amelia, an eighth grader. “CAFE is a comfortable environment to talk about uncomfortable topics, which makes it easier to have difficult conversations in other, less-familiar environments.”
CAFE is a flagship in the Middle School’s programming on diversity, equity and inclusion. Students attend sessions voluntarily, with nearly a third of the Middle School population dropping in regularly. There they learn to listen to one another, debate issues and ask questions about topics that stymie even the most polished pundits.
Topics range from immigration to race, from the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico to gaming culture, from commercialism to cultural appropriation and national anthem protests. Faculty members Sue Austin and Carrie Ferrin select and present the issues without opinion or commentary. They moderate the conversation with questions that prompt students to react, discuss and debate among themselves.
“Students are learning so much about different cultures and becoming more fluent in the social identifiers [ability, age, ethnicity, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation and socioeconomic class], and we saw an opportunity,” Sue says. “We want everyone to be part of the conversation, because no matter how difficult it is, or how much we disagree, speaking with one another is valuable.”
Conversations in CAFE are inquisitive, respectful and sometimes challenging, but never heated, says Carrie. She and Sue often introduce topics by asking, “What do you know about this?” which prompts curiosity, rather than pontification.
“They listen to one another, and they are so amazingly respectful,” Carrie says. “They’re learning how to disagree, but in a way that keeps the conversation productive.”
Researching the topics requires listening to the students’ interests and finding age-appropriate context for provocative subjects—maturity levels and cultural competence vary broadly from sixth to eighth grade. While all the students may be interested in current events, Carrie says, many have only a surface-level understanding of a topic—or none at all—at the beginning of each session.
“There’s a lot of information out there, and they hear a lot of things, but they don’t always know the total picture of an issue,” she says. “That’s what CAFE brings to them.”
Student-led CAFE sessions have been some of the best. Any student who feels passionate about a subject is welcome to prepare a discussion. Ava McNeil ’22, now in Class IV, saw CAFE as an opportunity to share some of her research on black rights. She was able to speak about racial bias in policing and share her sadness and fear over its potential risks for people she loves.
“CAFE has encouraged me to listen to everyone speak their truth, and for me to do the same, even with difficult topics,” she says. “I chose to speak about treatment of black people, specifically by police officers. As a black student with a big family, it is a very important topic to me.”
Thatcher, a seventh grader, said CAFE has helped him differentiate between an argument and a fight. During a discussion about NFL players protesting police brutality, he recalled, students held strong and opposing opinions, but kept the talk civil.
“Saying what you want to say can be difficult,” he says. “Sometimes what you have in your mind comes out the wrong way. I’m learning to listen to others and not be afraid of voicing my own opinion. I have disagreed with other people at CAFE at times. Last year, I would hold
in my disagreement, because I didn’t want to start a full-on argument, but I’ve learned to have a healthy discussion when I disagree.”
One Wednesday last fall, the students discussed a migrant caravan of people from Honduras and Guatemala walking toward the United States’ southern border. A video interview with a 12-year-old boy who’d left his family in search of work, the danger of the journey and the boy’s separation from loved ones resonated among the younger students. Older students raised logistical and political questions.
“We have troops on the border now,” one eighth grader said. “What’s going to happen to the caravan when all these people get to America? Will they be hurt?”
Sue and Carrie want the students to leave CAFE with lingering questions. Serious, complicated topics are impossible to button up in less than an hour.
“We want them to leave fired up, sometimes angry, sometimes relieved, sometimes confused,” Sue says. “We want them to go out on their own to learn more, to have conversations with their families and friends.”
The open discussion format in CAFE successfully represents the Middle School’s effort to increase students’ social and cultural awareness, says Principal Nancy Anderson. This year, the Middle School launched the Common Ground Initiative: a unified curriculum to address social identifiers such as age, race, socioeconomic status and gender. Over the summer of 2018, faculty developed lesson plans around each of the eight social identifiers and have been teaching them throughout the academic year.
“The philosophy behind the initiative is that every child in the Middle School should, in some way, think about, participate in, and experience a common curriculum about social identifiers,” says Sonya Conway, Grade 6 dean and the Middle School’s chair of multiculturalism and community development.
“These discussions are amazing,” Sonya says. “We’re getting into topics and deeper, even sometimes uncomfortable, conversations I have never had before with sixth graders, in a structured way that feels safe for them to explore. They’re learning about themselves. They’re learning about others. I look at the national landscape, and some adults’ inability to engage in simple discourse, ask questions, present strong opinions, or just listen, and the kids are doing that here.”
by Marisa Donelan
Celebrating culture, tradition, personal stories and love, Grade 2 students present their Family Museum, sharing their months of exploration into their own families and history.
The students interview family members and collect artifacts from their history—this year, a 200-year-old family bible, a military medal, a Milton diploma, a Korean hanbok,
a fraternity leadership gavel, and a traditional shofar were among the exhibits. They also design their own family crests, record videos, share unique family traditions, tell parts of their family stories in Spanish, and write persuasive essays to their parents.
“The students take away an appreciation for who they are,” says second-grade teacher Sue Munson. “A lot of them have not had these kinds of conversations with their family members. They’re learning so much about where they’re from and the special people in their lives.”
This year’s persuasive essays ran the gamut from requests for new pets to encouraging new family traditions. Here are some of the students’ letters to their parents.
“When we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.”
So says the writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, whose TED Talk on the dangers of single stories and exclusively dominant narratives inspired English department faculty member Olivia Robbins to ask her students to approach some of the world’s most studied texts from several new angles:
What arguments would volley between the members of the chorus in Oedipus Rex?
What would a minor character tweet about the events in The Odyssey?
How might writing yourself into The Inferno challenge your opinion of Dante’s moral authority?
In her talk, Adichie describes her first exposure to children’s literature: Though she lived in Nigeria, she had access only to British and American stories. When she began writing as a child, her stories featured white, blue-eyed characters living in snowy climates.
“I did not know that people like me could exist in literature,” she says. “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
Olivia, who earned her master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education in the spring, spent the past two years in Milton’s English department as a Penn fellow. She joined the full-time faculty this fall.
Three seemingly discrete factors caught Olivia’s attention in her first year teaching Founding Voices, an examination of classic world literature. First, her students saw the works as they would artifacts in a museum. “The students were approaching the literature as if it were a statue, which gave them a singular understanding of what ancient literature was supposed to be,” Olivia says. “I really wanted to counter that notion, or make it more complex, and to make the literature more accessible.”
Second, Olivia noticed in classroom discussions that students crafted their comments to show mastery of the work, rather than listening and engaging with each other in the moment. Third, she noticed an absolutist attitude among students about their own abilities. “Some students were talking about disciplines as things they were either ‘bad at’ or ‘good at,’ and making blanket statements like, ‘I can’t do math,’ or ‘I’m going to fail that test,’” Olivia says. “Just because some things are more challenging for you doesn’t mean you’re a bad student.
“While these all seem like different issues, I saw a common theme among them, which was that students were not attending to alternative viewpoints or perspectives,” she explains. “How could I encourage them to take on alternative viewpoints — alternative viewpoints about what literature can look like, alternative viewpoints around the table in discussions? I also wanted them to shift their mindset about their own potential, to have a new story.”
Olivia decided to focus her master’s inquiry project, a thesis of sorts, on helping her students form counter narratives in Founding Voices. Working with English faculty member Jessica Bond, Olivia created a series of assignments that challenged students to view their reading through multiple lenses. The classes watched and discussed Adichie’s talk in the beginning of the year.
Students read works ranging from Gilgamesh to Medea, Ramayana to Macbeth. For this course, Milton’s English faculty have intentionally selected works with a broad geographic range, but there are consistent limits with foundational world literature: stories were written, typically, by men in positions of power, about royalty or members of a society’s aristocracy. Majoritarian stories traditionally center “heroes” who are white, male, middle- to upper-class and heterosexual. Research shows that using a counter-story can expose, analyze and challenge majoritarian stories of racial privilege (Solórzano and Yosso, “Critical Race Methodology, Counter-Storytelling as an Analytical Framework for Education Research,” 2002), and Olivia sought to challenge other dominant narratives in the same way.
After studying The Odyssey, students read The Penelopiad, a novella by Margaret Atwood in which Odysseus’ wife Penelope recalls the events of The Odyssey from her perspective, restructuring the narrative Homer has given her.
“The reaction from the students was, ‘You’re allowed to do this with books? You’re allowed to write from another character’s perspective?’” Olivia says. “Margaret Atwood is such a master of voice that she gives Penelope fire and opinions we don’t see in The Odyssey, where she’s in the background, crying and waiting all this time for her husband.”
Students were asked to retell the stories they read from the perspectives of minor characters, to “try on” an understanding of antagonists, and to keep discussion and feedback journals, in which they recorded both their participation experiences along with their successes, challenges and confusions with assignments. They debated, they wrote themselves into the stories, and answered questions about the works from multiple perspectives.
Students reported at the end of the year that they were able to feel more empathy toward minor characters and underrepresented voices in the text, and were better equipped to detect bias from the stories’ narrators. One male student, in retelling parts of Gilgamesh through the perspective of a temple prostitute, gave voice to a character whose actions are controlled by others and related her story to sexual abuse by clergy in the modern age.
“Over the course of the year, students ended up picking characters who are further away from them and their own experiences,” Olivia says. “Initially, they were more likely to choose someone who shared their gender identity or their racial identity, but as the year progressed, we’d see them trying on a perspective of someone who was different from them in terms of their identity markers.
“They retold the stories, and I had them keep authors’ notes to explain what they were trying to accomplish in the retelling, and they loved the activity,” she explains. “It feels very much like a fun and creative thing to do, but it’s sort of like slipping kale into a smoothie. You don’t notice it, but it’s healthier. For the students, it didn’t feel like writing an analytical essay, but they were, because they made arguments through the characters they chose to focus on, and how they portrayed those characters.”
Olivia employed what she describes as a “liberal revision policy,” which prompted the students to review and react to her comments, and they could meet and speak about ways to improve their analyses. Every student who attempted a revision improved his or her grade, with one exception, whose grade remained static.
Discussions around the Harkness table improved, as well, as students became more comfortable exploring other perspectives.
“I hear them using the terms ‘from my perspective,’ or ‘I understand where you’re coming from,’” Olivia says. “It’s not the language of right vs. wrong; it’s the language of ‘I hear you.’”
by Marisa Donelan
In theory, learning is fun. Plenty of learning, though, comes as a result of struggle and frustration. Every spring, our seniors remind us about the effect of fun on their motivation, commitment and achievement. Their senior projects show us, in living color, the power of self-designed learning, as they develop and carry out projects to culminate their Milton experiences.
Senior projects span a range of efforts, from making movies to researching in science, from interning in medical institutions to writing poetry, from creating code to caring for elders and young people, to creating photography and composing music. The projects’ common thread is that students shape them to do something that inspires them and to enjoy a substantive — and fun — experience as they conclude their high school careers. Watching seniors light up as they describe the rewards of their last month at Milton is amazing.
As shrinking college admission rates continue to dominate headlines and institutions of higher education drive students toward trying to compete even more effectively, remembering that fun is an essential part of learning is especially important. We must hold the constant beat of achievement in check. Not only does our desire for students to reach for success in college cloud our judgment, so does our intense desire to help them learn as much as possible in every class and at every stage of their lives at Milton. Healthy fun and play, laughter and self-directed processes are as important as other key elements of learning. Fun enhances, rather than detracts, from rigorous study and high achievement.
Of course, laughter and games aren’t the only valuable routes toward the goal. Transformative learning sometimes requires a struggle. And struggle can cultivate perseverance. Focus often brings understanding. A level of positive stress can be a motivator. Frustration yields breakthroughs and making mistakes opens doors to new approaches. Reaching a sense of accomplishment through challenge is where the fun is, sometimes.
Making sense of an author’s ideas so you can connect them to your own thoughts or contribute your insights to a discussion is thrilling. Looking at a piece of your own writing and thinking, “Yes, this is what I meant!” and feeling confident that others will understand your ideas is exhilarating. Surmounting a mental barrier, finding a missing link and reaching an excellent solution to a math problem — these are great moments.
Research shows that learning is indeed deeper, more transformative and more effective when it involves healthy amounts of fun.
You can find joy and laughter in and out of the classroom on the Milton campus, from Kindergarten through Grade 12. Many Milton “lifers,” as we affectionately call the alumni
who have participated in every grade here, will point to teachers like Gary Shrager in the Lower School, an acknowledged “King of Fun.” Mr. Shrager’s science classes are jam-packed with scientific inquiry, data collection, fact-based arguments and purposeful laboratory work. As Mr. Shrager says, “Science is amazing. How could it possibly not be fun?”
The Middle School faculty deeply understands the developmental needs of our 12- to 14-year-olds. Adults on the first two floors of Ware Hall are unified on the critical importance of a vibrant, high energy, quirky, step-out-of-your-comfort-zone atmosphere as they pursue high-end achievement.
In the Upper School at Milton, as the academic program intensifies and students ramp up their academic preparation for life at college and beyond, should we lose the humor and the lightness? My answer is, assuredly: “No.” As we approach adulthood, issues and choices get more serious, for good reason. We prepare students for a difficult and intense world. Must we mirror the world’s intensity during teenagers’ high school years? We note the trend and push back.
Where should excellent schools go from here? How should Milton grow as an institution? The list of goals is a long one, but I hope that we remember the importance of joy, happiness and laughter in the learning environment that we cultivate. How exciting for today’s students, and those in the future, to know that Milton continues to share the joy of learning, as an essential element of our mission. Success, as we define it, involves having fun and loving learning for a lifetime.
By Todd B. Bland
David Smith, chair of Milton’s English department for 11 years and faculty member from 1981 through 2015, describes his recently published book, Be a Teacher, as “a memoir in 10 ideas.” David crafts the irresistible essays in his book with artfully rendered scenes, lively and idiosyncratic characters, unfailing wit and unfettered honesty. From his exploration of ideas about teaching and learning as they evolved over decades of experience, Milton Magazine excerpts:
Shakespeare was my own first literary love affair (not counting Hornblower and the space operas of Heinlein and Bradbury), and whenever I start teaching a play it is like renewing an old, old relationship, one that can be set aside and picked up again without a missed beat. Like most relationships, though, it is more complicated than it at first seems — or, at least, it has a history. The pure linguistic intoxication that I felt when I imbibed Richard II in the spring of 1958 is still with me, but many of the plays seem to have shifted shape over time. Today I can scarcely believe how much slack I once cut King Lear, how ready I was to accept his self-serving claim to be a man “more sinned against than sinning,” and how I idealized the priggish daughter who is so hung up on telling the truth that she provokes a deadly familial war. When I watch Paul Schofield, in the Peter Brook movie, heave over a table in Goneril’s refectory and send the plates and cutlery flying, I think that Schofield and Brook (and the Fool) have got it right: it’s too bad this tantruming toddler became old before he became wise. Why ever did I choose to overlook such egregious bad behavior?
The play that has changed the most for me, however, is that ultimate canonical work, Hamlet, with which I became obsessed as a junior in college. I identified with the Prince, who seemed to me like a more romantic and more eloquent version of Holden Caulfield. I relished both his scathing tirades and his flippant repartee. Unlucky in love myself (or so I imagined despite having experienced nothing but the most rarefied crushes), I felt the full anguish of his rejection by Ophelia. His melancholy was an intoxicant, his anger a rush of righteousness. I scorned the distance that my teachers insisted was the proper stance toward a character in a literary work. When Olivier, sword in hand, leapt from a stone staircase to dispatch his uncle, I leapt with him. The existential laugh that Burton gave at the end, as he sank down on the vacant throne to let the poison do its work, seemed to come from my own mouth. That my goggle-eyed hero-worship of a character in a 350-year-old play might seem odd to the girl I took to the Burton film did not occur to me — or, if it did, demoted her in my mind to just one more pretty but uncomprehending Ophelia, who might better head straight for a nunnery than go on another date with me.
I first taught the play the year I was a Fellow at Andover. By way of mentoring, the chairman asked me to teach it not to my own students but to those of one of the senior department members, who would watch and offer suggestions. The teacher had little rapport with his class and was happy to sit back and let me do what I could, which was, by comparison with the enormous weight of meaning that Hamlet had for me, not much. By this time I had most of the text memorized, and I had spent an entire Christmas vacation gleaning nuggets of commentary from the variorum edition and inscribing them in the margins of my book. I was prepared to be both guru and drudge, but neither role seemed to have much effect. I talked and talked. When they talked — and they did so rarely — none of the students expressed anything like my affinity for the Prince. Their papers were dutiful but uninspired. After the last meeting, my would-be mentor complimented me on my knowledge of the play but had nothing to say about the non-event of my teaching it. His mentoring, like most I received in those figure-it-out-for-yourself days, was a non-event piled on a non-event. Mostly, he seemed dispirited at the prospect of having to take the class back on his own narrow shoulders.
My students today are often fascinated by Hamlet the play, though they have their doubts about Hamlet the character. I show them the 38 pages of notes that one website coughs up on possible meanings of the phrase “smote the sledded pollax on the ice” and we share a laugh at the expense of X-treme literary scholarship. Then we get down to gauging the extent of our sympathy with the Prince. I am smart enough by this time to get out of the way and let the room fill up with the questions that Shakespeare’s words naturally evoke. If a consensus emerges, it is rarely in favor of Hamlet. True, he’s surrounded by insensitive adults and unsympathetic (and even treacherous) peers. True, he has some reason to believe that his uncle poured poison in his father’s ear — and he knows that the drunken old goat has married his mother. But Hamlet talks too much and thinks too much. He’s a habitual procrastinator — probably never turned his papers in on time back there in Wittenberg. If he wants revenge, he should get on with it and not let things fester. Worst of all, like Holden, he’s too cynical, too ready to write off the world and all its juicy opportunities.
I’d like my students to like Hamlet a little more than they usually do. His philosophical questioning is appropriate to the age group, and so is his weltschmerz. But I can’t help admiring their refusal to be swept along by the conventional assumption that he is a hero, and I have to love their reflexive faith that life must be more than a pestilent congregation of vapors. As for me, my identification with the Prince has weakened considerably over the years, and I even begin to feel a certain fellow feeling for Claudius. He is no better than he should be — indeed, a good deal worse — but he has been around the block often enough to understand that we must try to make our peace with living in a fallen state. This perspective, too, is a useful one for young and old to consider.
Many adults scroll through, watch or share hundreds of posts, feeds, photos and videos every day. Posts can provoke emotions from joy to intense sadness, and some deliver misinformation or lies. These personal habits among adults lead them to worry about how social media affects the lives of their teenagers.
For a status check from the point of view of today’s teen practitioners, students shared their views about social media, particularly Instagram and Snapchat, their two most popular social media platforms. In addition, Lisa Morin, director of counseling, and Elihu Selter, clinical psychologist at Milton’s Health and Counseling Center, relayed their experiences as professionals who encounter the impact of kids’ digital lives every day.
Ninety-two percent of teens report going online daily, including 24 percent who say they go online “almost constantly,” according to a 2015 study (ages 13–17) from the Pew Research Center. In many ways, students are more savvy about social media than adults. They know how to use the apps, they speak the language and they understand the unspoken rules. They are also aware of the pitfalls and the problems, but this doesn’t mean they are immune to them.
“The original point of something like Facebook made total sense: to connect with people you haven’t seen in years,” says one Milton student. “But now we go to school with the majority of people on our social media; so you’re not trying to connect with people you haven’t seen in a while. Today, posting is more like pretending you’re something you’re not for people you see and talk to every day. People get wrapped up in it.”
Social media is a great way to remain in touch with friends from previous schools, camps, teams and clubs, students say. It’s also a way to stay connected with siblings at college and just families, in general. “Seeing someone and what’s going on in their life on the other side of the world is great,” says one student. “Even if it may have been edited, it’s still happening and you can appreciate that.”
Both Lisa and Elihu say social media can be good for introverted teens, because it’s an easy, and sometimes safer, way to make connections. “It gives them an opportunity to practice talking with someone, without having to do it in person, so that can be a valuable tool,” says Elihu.
As an open forum for expression, social media can facilitate activism and organization advocating causes and beliefs, which many students, especially at Milton, embrace.
“Students can connect with each other in ways we couldn’t when we were growing up,” says Elihu. “They can participate in movements and engage in ideas and processes, and social media used this way is quite amazing.”
“Milton encourages you to express yourself and your opinions and I definitely see that a lot on social media, especially on finstas*,” says one student. “Everyone’s just talking about how they are feeling and why.”
Many teens get their news on social media. Snapchat is often their first news source for breaking stories. Mainstream news outlets all have Snapchat “channels” and students can choose to follow some and receive alerts.
Students also value accounts that explore issues such as body positivity, which can counter those that promote the “perfect” body. “Following them is really great,” says one student. “It’s not that I have huge issues, but it just makes me smile to see that there are people doing that in the world.”
What might surprise some adults is that phone calls are still valued. “If I get a phone call, I’m going to pick it up, because to me, a phone call means ‘right now, I need to talk to you,’” says one student.
“I have a couple friends on medical leave right now. I’ll text them during the day but I’ll call them in the night to actually have a conversation,” says another.
Most students who spoke have a limited number of social media accounts. They also take breaks from using them or completely stop using certain accounts for various reasons; although everyone mentioned knowing students who are “addicted” to social media.
“I stopped using Snapchat the summer before freshman year because I found I wasn’t interacting with my family and friends as much as I wanted. My sister was going to college and so it was let’s focus on time with her before she leaves.”
“When I had Snapchat, I was all for it. I was loving it. Then when I took myself out of it, I realized that it probably wasn’t the most beneficial thing for me,” says another.
“I rarely come across a student who does not have any social media, but there are some who say, ‘No I’m not getting into that.’ Or others actually shut it off at night. But that’s even more rare,” says Lisa.
Lisa and Elihu explain that because their frontal lobes are still developing, teenagers are susceptible to acting on impulse, a dangerous tendency when it comes to social media. But also concerning are trends the counselors see
in overall person-to-person communication.
“How we communicate and the depth of our communication has changed and I wonder how that translates into friendships,” says Elihu. “Relationships don’t have as much depth to them, and I worry about that because this is the first generation to experience this. The art of talking has been lost in so many ways. Does social media affect the way fully get to know somebody? When my children, who are 6 and 8, are teenagers, what will life look like for them?
Students share this concern. “I worry the most about little kids who are growing up with this system and how they’re going to learn to distinguish real facts.”
Most students are aware that many photos and posts are manipulated, staged or carefully selected. “People aren’t going to necessarily post the negatives in their life,” says one student. “They’re showing their highlights. You are seeing or posting the cool things that are worth sharing. You don’t see just ordinary things on social media. It’s kind of an alternate reality; you’re not always getting the full picture.”
“Everyone is so addicted to praise,” says another student. “Everyone’s fishing for compliments, for ‘likes,’ it’s a never-ending obsession. It’s damaging to your self confidence and welfare.”
Elihu says this can especially be a problem for “students who might feel marginalized, ostracized or depressed. They already feel, ‘Everyone is doing okay but me.’ They spend their weekends scrolling through these posts and say, ‘Wow, everyone seems happy all the time. I’m not good. Here’s all the evidence that everyone else is great.’ So it’s really hard for them to get out of that bubble of thinking their life is difficult, because it looks like everyone else is doing well. Getting them to see that these posts are not necessarily real life is a huge challenge.”
Students who understand the pitfalls or understand that some things might not be real reached that realization through hard experience. “One of the biggest issues is that you don’t know who’s behind the screen all the time,” says one student. “You may think you are Snapchatting your friend, but it may be somebody else using their account and telling you things. That was really confusing and upsetting to figure out at first. It violates a sense of trust between the you and your friend.”
Lisa points out that social media is 24/7 and shutting out the noise is hard for students. “Before social media, if you had a fight with a friend or were being picked on at school, and you went home or back to the dorm, that would be a break. But today there is no break, because online it’s still happening. There is no healthy way to shut it off.”
Elihu notes that with one upsetting post, a student could be “done for that day. They check out. Sometimes that one image can destroy you for a week, if not more.” Students said some of the most upsetting posts involve bullying, sexual references, and joking—particularly racial and gender jokes.
As for getting news and information on social media? “You can like or follow whoever you want, celebrities, politicians or people in your friend group,” says Lisa. “You basically curate what you want so your social media input becomes an echo chamber. You are not learning to have a discussion with someone who disagrees with you.”
“People talk about how we seem disconnected from one another even though we’re more connected than we’ve ever been,” says Elihu.
Educational institutions are all wrestling with this reality—figuring out how to help students set boundaries, navigate the social dynamics of being a teenager online and evaluate the constant stream of feeds funneling information.
Milton Academy has contracted with The Social Institute to work with students for the next two years. The Institute’s approach is to empower teenagers to use social media in positive and constructive ways. Instead of focusing on what teens should not do, the focus is on how to use social platforms to do good. The Social Institute will work through student assemblies, parent presentations and small workshops with student leaders.
by Liz Matson
*Finsta: fake Instagram, more popular with girls. Typically a finsta is a second account limited to a smaller group of friends. Students said they can post more freely and be their true selves on finsta accounts. Their main Instagram accounts have more followers, and they post less often and more selectively.