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Month November 2015

(PART 3) A (Pragmatic/Optimistic) Recommendation from two Millennials (Ali and Mel)

This is Part Three (the finale) of a three part collaborative blog by Alison and Mel contrasting generational perspectives on passion, purpose, and pathways to success.

“Your message is great, but as 9th graders at a high-performing school, we’ve been essentially told what our paths should be for the next ten years (that is, to graduate from high school and attend a top-tier college). How do we make the choice to pursue our “musts” now, if our futures are basically decided for us through college?”

This question is a particularly interesting one; and it’s certainly one that we can empathise with. Our recommendation to the 9th graders would be to take the time to understand and discover your ‘musts’ without necessarily shedding your ‘shoulds’. There is beauty in being mindfully aware of both your passions and societal expectations, without also being impulsive. As teenagers, you’ve probably only been exposed to a ritualistic life that consists of mostly being at school and perhaps engaging in a few after school activities. Therefore, you probably don’t have a developed and comprehensive understanding of what your ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’ even are yet – and that’s totally fine! There are ways to discover and foster your ‘musts’ while still pursuing your ‘shoulds’. For example, let’s say that a ‘should’ is: I should go to college. However, you also know that a ‘must’ of yours is: I must paint. Well, our advice would be to schedule time into your schedule at college to continue cultivating your skill as a painter whenever possible, and to incorporate this ‘must’ into your daily routine and practice, even if your efforts are primarily centered on your ‘shoulds’. You could even major or minor in the Visual Arts! Your college years are a wonderful time  (and perhaps the only time afforded to your young adult life) to explore, make space for, and cultivate the passions that you didn’t or couldn’t afford to in high school or potentially later in your professional life. For example, you could take an eclectic class or join an intriguing club that wouldn’t have been offered to you as a high schooler. You may discover a ‘must’ that you never even knew existed! In sum, we believe that it’s important to engage in reflective introspection while being open to new activities, perspectives, and environments in order to cultivate an evolving understanding of your ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’. However, it is not always beneficial to act impulsively and dispose of the ‘shoulds’ immediately. It’s worth considering what the intentions of the ‘shoulds’ are (economic stability, moral upbringing, mental and physical health are some of the intentions of ‘shoulds’), and whether and how your ‘musts’ serve those intentions – and whether those ‘shoulds’ apply to you. Oftentimes, you can pursue your ‘shoulds’ while still allotting time for your ‘musts’ to develop. Remember, understanding the ‘self’ is a lifelong process; don’t assume that you already know all of your ‘musts’ and ‘shoulds’. Let life surprise you.


We wish you the best as you ponder your trajectories at The Crossroads of Should and Must!
Written By: Melissa Cesarano and Alison Lee

(PART 2) A Millennial Take on “The Crossroads of Should and Must”

This is Part Two of a three part collaborative blog by Alison and Mel contrasting generational perspectives on passion, purpose, and pathways to success.

The rethinkED team was very privileged to attend Elle Luna’s talk entitled ‘The Crossroads of Should and Must’, which discussed striking an optimal balance between pursuing one’s own passions (The Musts) and fulfilling societal expectations of success (the Shoulds). Elle Luna, a millennial herself,  emphasized that in order to identify the ‘Shoulds’ and the ‘Musts’, one needs to cultivate a heightened sense of self-awareness (i.e., what matters to me most? What makes me uniquely me?), as well as a realization of the belief and value systems imposed on us by society (i.e. what kinds of assumptions are made about who I should be and what I should care about?). A critical component of this introspective process is the ability to understand when personal and societal expectations coincide or deviate from one another.  For example, do the tenets of my religious upbringing align with the ethical beliefs that I’ve acquired from my personal experience? To clarify, Elle Luna does not mean to imply that all ‘Shoulds’ are inherently bad or that we need to immediately act on shedding all of our ‘Shoulds’ in order to arrive at a more authentic experience. In fact, Elle Luna explains that many ‘shoulds’ are actually essential for our survival and our successful development into adulthood. Thus, a continuous and evolving evaluation of which ‘Shoulds’ are harmful or beneficial to our personal goals, will help guide our awareness to the specific ‘shoulds’ that are necessary to shed.

A Gen-Z response to “Shoulds” vs. “Musts”

A recent article in the NY Times highlighted the rise of Generation Z (estimated to be between 5-19 years old now). Younger, true digital natives, hard-working, anxious, and skeptical, these adolescents harbor a sense of general apprehension and anxiety – understandably, as they are growing up in a time when economic and political systems are less stable, peers are more competitive, and the prospects of growing up less optimistic. This may be particularly inflated on the Riverdale campus, where our young scholars are among the most talented, hard-working, and competitive – their futures are bright, but the bar is set exceptionally high, too. It is not surprising, then, that Elle Luna’s presentation elicited one particularly pragmatic but well-considered question from the freshman class attending the talk: “Your message is great, but as 9th graders at a high-performing school, we’ve been essentially told what our paths should be for the next ten years (that is, to graduate from high school and attend a top-tier college). How do we make the choice to pursue our “musts” now, if our futures are basically decided for us through college?” It was a legitimate question that clearly resonated with the class, eliciting snaps and nods of agreements.

How do you (personally) uncover your ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’? Is there a particular habit or routine that allows you to introspect in this way? Do you think that your generation has had a large influence on your path to self-discovery? Are your generations’ attitudes and beliefs really just another ‘should’? How do you balance your life responsibilities and your life passions? We’d love to discuss all of these questions! Be sure to comment below!
Next week, a post on how we would respond to the Gen Z-er’s question: a (pragmatic/optimistic) recommendation from two millennials (ourselves).

(Part 1) Millennials: Selfish Couch Potatoes or Optimistic World Citizens?

This is Part One of a three part collaborative blog by Alison and Mel contrasting generational perspectives on passion, purpose, and pathways to success.

If you Google the term “Millennials”, you’ll return about 17 million hits that all center on disentangling the psyche of the generation who has or just about reached adulthood today. There is great contention in understanding what drives Millennials; we are “entitled”, “narcissistic”, “lazy”, “overeducated”, leeches who live at home, diverse, entitled, and financially anxious; but we are also frugal, financially and technologically savvy, upbeat, engaged, increasingly global, socially and politically literate/active, share a common mistrust of religious leaders, government entities and military powers, socially liberal, and surprisingly optimistic despite growing up in an era of economic instability and wavering confidence in political leaders. Most critically, there are overwhelming disagreements about whether the millennial pursuit of the “perfect job” – that is, a job that fulfills intellectual needs, compensates generously for provided skill, purposefully addresses a real world demand, and respects the parameters of a work-life balance – is decidedly selfish/unrealistic, or a welcome departure from previous generations’ approach to careers and fulfillment. It is a debate that generates both derision and admiration from older generations, and point to a larger paradigmatic shift in a values system that is quickly evolving before our eyes: what fulfills us? What matters in a job? How do you quantify success? At what point does personal ambition come at odds with pragmatic considerations? What is the longevity of such a pursuit, and what are the financial, emotional, and societal implications down the road?

Where do you fall in your evaluation of what’s important in a career? How has the generation you belonged to, and the historical events surrounding your coming-of-age impacted how you defined success? What do you think of the millenial pursuit of the “perfect job?” Sound off and let us know how you define success, happiness, and career satisfaction in the comments below. 


Next week, a post on how one millennial has framed her pursuit of purpose and profession in a talk titled “The Crossroads of Should and Must”, and how one Generation Z-er, a Riverdale student, responded.

“Why do we need to know this?” [Connecting the classroom to the real world]

This past week the rethinkED team participated in a day-long think tank on how to re-invent the American High School, in an effort to develop a proposal for the XQ Super School Project. While I am excited to share some of the ideas we had, today I thought I’d start by thinking about one really powerful idea that kept me thinking long after our session ended:

“Why do we need to know this?”

^ This question is one that often pops up in the classroom. Quite frankly, students often do not see a connection between the abstract and tedious work done in classroom and their lives outside of school, both future and present. This lack of connection is problematic for a number of reasons:

  1. Without this vital connection, we often encounter the “inert knowledge” problem; students learn something but they don’t know how to use it. This relates more broadly to issues of transfer: how can we help students to use something they have learned in one context, at one time, or on one type of task in a different context, time, or on a different task? I am currently taking a course about Transfer of Learning. While transfer is arguably a main goal of education, research has generally found weak support for transfer. Students often do not learn content in ways that facilitate applying knowledge later in life or in different situations (I hope to talk about this more in upcoming weeks!).
  2. A second issue is the lack of value assigned to content learned in school. Without understanding potential applications of a skill, students see little value in learning it in the first place. If I don’t value what I am learning, I am less motivated and engaged.

Connecting classroom and community through project and problem based learning…*

With this in mind, I loved hearing this TED talk by Cesar Harada: How I teach kids to love science. He connects science to real community problems, both local and abroad. From developing an invention to estimate plastic in polluted oceans to analyzing seabed radioactivity near the Fukushima nuclear power plant that was damaged in 2011, Harada’s students work on real and relevant work problems in their science classroom. This sort of problem and project-based experiential learning can help students see the relevance of science education. Furthermore, Harada is cultivating a generation of innovators and problem solvers. His classroom is a workshop. Through rapid prototyping with tools, his students have become scientists and inventors. As he says,

“So citizen scientists, makers, dreamers — we must prepare the next generation that cares about the environment and people, and that can actually do something about it.”


By connecting science skills to real-world issues, we can increase the relevance of school education and give our students much needed experience in using skills in a meaningful way. As illustrated by Cesar Harada, connecting schoolwork to real life problems has benefits beyond increasing value and transfer; we can empower students to be innovators and problem solvers.

This process of embedding learning in the community and in real, complex problems is something that we hope to include in our XQ proposal. By providing students with a variety of contexts in which their knowing can be directly applied, we can create a more engaging and useful education that has applicability far beyond the classroom…*


On Emotions, Cognition, and Comedy: An Introduction

Hello everyone! My name is Melissa Cesarano, and I am a new member of the rethinkED team for the 2015-2016 school year. To introduce myself, I’d like to begin by stating that I’m quite an eccentric human with eclectic tastes and talents. I’m a yogi, actress, comedian/improviser, poet, and cognitive scientist! I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania (Quakersssss!!!) with a Bachelor’s Degree in Cognitive Studies and Philosophy of Mind, and a minor in Poetics. Currently, I’m a PhD student at Columbia University in Cognitive Studies in Education. I also work at a biotech company, Evoke Neuroscience, where I serve as the company’s science writer, lecturer, and research associate. At Evoke, I’m also training to receive a certification in biofeedback and neurofeedback, which will help me acquire a more holistic approach to emotional and psychological wellness, in addition to my more academic brain expertise. Additionally, I’m attending comedy school at The Peoples Improv Theater and The Upright Citizens Brigade. I’ve co-founded my own NYC sketch comedy group, Laundry Day Comedy, and believe strongly that humor, play, and creativity are essential to our epistemic growth and self-realization as life long students; as Ludwig Wittgenstein so elegantly stated, “If people never did silly things nothing intelligent would ever get done.”

My research as a Doctoral Candidate focuses on emotions. In undergrad, I felt that the cognitive realm was academically interesting, yet lacked the poetry, color, and humanity that I yearned for as an artist and creative. Admittedly, there seemed to be a lack of understanding as to where/how to fit emotions into a cognitive framework. Therefore, about two years into graduate school education, I resolved to undertake the task of understanding emotions from a cognitive perspective.

Emotions are difficult to comprehend intellectually even though they’re an integral part of our everyday lives. Nevertheless, they certainly color our interactions with others, motivate our behaviors, elucidate our passions, and are essential to our experience as humans. To clarify, they are a phenomenological manifestation of the things that matter to us. For a brief introduction to emotions (What Emotions Are (and Aren’t)) I recommend reading this riveting article in The New York Times by Lisa Feldman Barrett, the head honcho in Emotion Research (I like to call her ‘The Big LFB’):

Specifically, the research that I’ve been conducting at Columbia, along with my research partner Ilya, relates to teaching people abstract models of the Human Emotion System (HES). Creating accurate mental models of our own emotional functioning and grounding these principles in tangible real-life emotional situations, seems to increase self-regulation through increased self-awareness of emotional functioning in a variety of different experiential contexts. The topic of my dissertation, however, deals with the ‘naïve’ mental models that people acquire intuitively through everyday life experience prior to explicit learning of the HES. Arriving at a deeper understanding of people’s HES intuitions and misconceptions (and the cognitive processes that underlie them) through careful epistemological inquiry, should thus allow for a more effective teaching of the HES model and other social-emotional learning (SEL) concepts.

Basically, I think it’s really insane that students are taught things like ‘the laws of physics’ in school, but are never taught the ‘laws of emotions’, the causal relations and principles of our own emotional functioning. Instead, we are left with the difficult and daunting task of pretty blindly dealing with these powerful and mysterious forces. Interestingly, emotionality is delegated to ‘higher learning’, a Psych 101 lecture in the hallowed spaces of America’s college halls.

Finally, I would like to join Ali in saying that it is an absolute privilege to be a part of such an inspiring community here at Riverdale. We hope to enlighten you and to contribute to the ever-evolving educational landscape at this prestigious school. Keep a lookout for upcoming posts from the rethinkED team!

With gratitude and an abundance of smiles,


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