Alicia Danyali, The New Century School‘s Dean of Students and Head of Lower School, makes it a point to stay abreast of trends in education, and, more broadly, how educators and parents influence the lives of the children in their care. On March 22nd, she had the extreme honor of presenting some of her ideas at the Community College of Baltimore County‘s fifth annual Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning Conference. (See the mission of the CRT-L by downloading this pdf, read about the keynote speakers here, and see a line-up of presentation blurbs here.)
Mrs. Danyali was kind enough to share the highlights of her presentation, “Understanding iGen and How to Forge Acceptance, Accountability, and Agents of Change,” in a sit-down with Immersed as well as her experience attending a presentation at a different but related conference.
Talkin’ ‘Bout Z Generation
“I submitted a proposal last January based on my fascination over the last 5 years with understanding acceptance and accountability, and how we become agents of change. Particularly, I wanted to focus on iGen.” explained Mrs. Danyali. (Henceforth we’ll use the term “Gen Z” instead of “iGen” to describe the demographic born between 1996 and 2009, because, according to some Gen Z-ers themselves, they don’t want their identity tied to the invention of the iPhone, and they also didn’t influence its creation. Also of note, others define the generation as having been born in 2000 and up.)
“Kids these days do not experience a lot of failure,” said Mrs. Danyali. “And, they have internalized this message that, if you do fail, don’t worry, you’ll get bailed out. I wanted to highlight, ‘How can we not get to that point?’ and instead to where we’re cultivating partnerships and trust in the schoolhouse, and we’re providing resources to create a different path,” she said.
Much of her talk was inspired by the work of University of San Diego professor of psychology Jean Twenge as well as by The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, a book by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. (As an aside, the word “failure” is typically used in this post as a positive—in the context of, “let them fail as children so they know how to be successful as adults.” As paradoxical as that sounds, it should be our mantra as parents, according to many.)
Said Mrs. Danyali:
Dr. Twenge is considered the expert in the area of generations and how generations vary. She has been conducting studies for more than two decades of what defines a generation and what trends have been changing. She looks at a generation as a 20-year period, and I used her definition in my presentation. She acknowledges that someone born in the first year of a so-called generation will have a very different experience than someone born in the last year of that generation. For example, if you’re a baby boomer, what’s your first memory of NASA (or another life-changing event)? That moment identifies you at a point in time. Whereas, for Gen Z, the defining event is 9/11, which defined the timeframe in pervasive ways, from socioeconomically to socially, as well as in how it affected the parents.
Dr. Twenge also hosts a podcast, “Speaking of Psychology,” and was featured on a recent episode of “Adam Ruins Everything.”
The Coddling of the American Mind was really a game-changer for Mrs. Danyali, and she says that book is how the accountability piece of her thoughts came to be. “What does it look like in the real world to have Gen X’ers being parents and propagating the mentality of ‘everybody gets a trophy’?,” she asked. “How have we adjusted for this new generation? Well, we have the new “safe space,” with videos of puppies playing and bubbles blowing where students retreat to when they feel anxiety.” We have “safetyism,” she continued—the idea that children should be protected from, rather than exposed, to challenges—and the “call-out culture”—the practice of denouncing people on social media who may not even be personally known to the denouncer. “I want to explore how this all came to be and what we can do at the preschool, elementary, high school, and college levels to forge ways to not enable students and create more independence,” she said. Instead of creating a school culture of enabling, create a culture of student empowerment.
Some of this also comes down to my observations, and I want to be clear that I’m not judging or criticizing, but we need to be able to admit, as parents, that sometimes our children are acting out in class, even if they are not necessarily doing so at home, or need extra support with a development milestone. So how can school and family partner to ensure that we’re making the child successful? First admitting, not enabling, then accepting. Instead of passing the buck, let’s just rule it out—it’s so much easier to put interventions in place at the preschool level than it would be at the high school level.
We’re not singling anyone out; we’re not judging. We’re trying to establish a partnership for the best possible outcome. There’s a lot of danger in self versus social rules and perception versus fact. What are the social norms, and why should there be exceptions for one or two individuals? That’s the resistance to partnership.
Referring to the recent college admissions scandal, “that’s enabling at the highest degree,” she said.
Mrs. Danyali’s Recommendations
“My goal with the presentation was to bring some valid recommendations to other educators,” she said. “I gave some anecdotal examples of what might be considered enabling and then suggested alternative methods to handle the situation.” You may see some familiar themes!
Guidelines and Strategies to Ensure Relevance, Practicality, and Accountability
1. Assume kids are more capable. Form boundaries of trust—have an internet use agreement at home and school. Create boundaries, not frustrations, and be the first person your child or student can come to with any topic.
2. Avoid enabling at any age. Provide opportunities to take risks, fail, and problem solve. Building confidence and resilience is not always about being “right.”
3. Encourage productive disagreement, and, most importantly, model listening behaviors.
4. Teach mindfulness. Done consistently and with intent, this will lead to being in the present moment and ultimately to less judgment. This can lead to compassion (for self, too), perspective taking, and strengthening emotion regulation.
5. Give people the benefit of doubt. Listen, question, and cultivate intellectual humility.
6. Look into how schools are handling identity politics. Is the curriculum lumping kids into stereotypes of “good” and ”bad,” as opposed to providing them individual experiences that are authentic in nature?
7. Reject the notion that experiencing anxiety is an excuse for poor behavior. No more crutches.
8. Encourage your district school to assign less homework for younger grades, to provide more recess with less supervision, to protect middle school recess (if it happens), and discourage the word “safe” for anything other than physical safety.
9. Believe in a world that is personal device–free in the schoolhouse; place clear boundaries on device time at home; and, most of all, have oversight on and conversations about habits with technology.
10. Lastly, protect your child’s sleep!
All of the ideas and threads Mrs. Danyali had been exploring really came home to roost when she serendipitously attended a presentation (not part of the CRT-L conference) by 17-year-old Josh Miller on defining Gen Z and XYZ University, which is the brainchild of CEO Sarah Sladek. Mr. Miller, the Director of Studies at XYZU, gives talks across the country about how he and his generational cohort should be educated based on their unique Gen Z-ness. Every day, he claims, students should be given time to work on a passion project because the current education model of learning facts has proven inadequate. That claim in and of itself is nothing new (TNCS itself in part grew out of opposition to the idea that learning should be rote; rather it should be inquiry driven and organic), but it is somewhat different to hear it from the perspective of the learner.
Mrs. Danyali shared an interesting irony that another audience member had pointed out, however. That kind of education would not be possible were it not for the support of the adults in the child’s life. It sounds kind of like needing to be coddled in order to reject the coddled life. (This is an oversimplification, of course, but it underscores just how the zeitgeist of one generation can become the catalyst for change in the next, which, meta-ironically, was one of Miller’s points.)
“This was so telling,” said Mrs. Danyali. “It brought all of my presentation together.”
I’m focusing on how much has shifted, but this shift has grown out of the ‘everyone-gets-a-trophy-culture’.” If everyone gets a trophy whether for winning or not, how will anyone learn how to cope with actual failure? Let’s start very early to put tools in place to be able to cope with failure—not for children to compare themselves with others as better or worse—but to cultivate independence so they can take care of themselves rather than having their Gen X parents intervene and fix everything. It’s okay to have negative emotions. And, our self-worth should not be based on the amount of likes we have.
“Mr. Miller was very well-spoken and gave many valid points about how Gen Z is perceived versus the reality,” said Mrs. Danyali. She is going to be reaching out to him to tie in another initiative she may be getting involved with, which is the Elijah Cummings Youth Program (ECYP), a 2-year leadership fellowship in Israel for Baltimore high school students. ECYP’s stated mission is: “Our Fellows lead their generation by gaining first-hand cross-cultural knowledge and skill. Our efforts are infused with the desire to further historic African-American and Jewish bonds.” Mr. Miller would also make a great presenter for next year’s CRT-L, said Mrs. Danyali.
Read the CEO of XYZU’s thesis here.