Resolutions

by Dr. Leslie Batty,  CRANE writer 

It is always during a passing state of mind
that we make lasting resolutions.
Marcel Proust

It seems as if the new year just started, but here in Atlanta we’re swiftly rounding the corner into spring. Our dogwoods and our Blue Ridge foothills and our weather-beaten, ill-fated Falcons banners are awash in a glorious, clear light.

As we look back on the winter that was at the crane offices, we notice that 2017’s herd of new year’s resolutions has already been rather dramatically culled. Originally they included the tried and true inclinations to climb more stairs and eat less caramel, to practice gratitude and get to bed at a decent hour. A few colleagues pledged to watch less television and one was determined to spend more time roasting more things in a Big Green Egg.

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Most of these promises were left out, in what passes for the cold here, sometime in early January.  Now, at the three-month mark, it seems the resolutions that survived are ones that aligned most closely and meaningfully with our existing values. Our nature-loving colleague has made good on her promise to hit the mountain trails twice a week. Our resident bibliophile is plowing through his book-per-week at top speed. The office sugar junkies/caramel disavowers, however, have long since slunk back to the candy drawer in our company kitchen.

The bottom line seems to be that we strive most strongly toward more of whatever already resonates with us. And perhaps that’s why new year’s resolutions, for all their storied fragility, tend to be substantial rather than superficial. The best resolution—the one most deeply felt and the most likely to stick—is really just a promise to circle back to the best of what’s already in us.

The same undercurrent of authenticity shapes our work at CRANE year round. Our clients don’t come to us to be reinvented, but for help to reintroduce their existing, differentiating truths. To flesh out what they already do beautifully. To better connect with the kinds of students and families they already serve brilliantly. Together, we resolve to create powerful, enduring messaging that sticks—because it connects to the best of what was already there all along, waiting to be excavated and exclaimed.

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Once upon a time: calling forth folklore to better position your school

by Chanda Grubbs, CRANE writer 

The words of the bards come down the centuries to us,
warm with living breath.

–Padraig Pearse
Irish poet, educator, activist

once-upon-a-time

Whether you opened your doors 300 or 30 years ago, you’ve got tales to tell. And while some may be the stuff of myth, others present invaluable opportunities for adding depth and further authenticity to your messaging.

The stern but beloved teacher who was known to make classes run laps in the cold for not taking an assignment seriously symbolizes an enduring commitment to academics. The first athletic triumph over a rival recounts tenacity and a burgeoning sense of school spirit. And whispered rumors of “haunted” buildings before campus renovations mark the intentional transformation of your physical environment.

Yet, so many institutions’ stories begin elsewhere—with talk of “academic excellence” and a parade of numbers, facts, figures, and nice-enough platitudes.

So we propose a more powerful way to share your school’s enduring relevance. What if your school’s value proposition today could harken back to your school’s distinctive beginnings?

Finding your folklore

Consider this student’s recollection, of his first day of school at the Shady Hill School in Cambridge, Massachusetts:

Imagine the first class of the first day, six or eight children shuffling onto the downstairs porch to shake hands with their first teacher. I was noticing how my shoes grated on the concrete floor. My indifference vanished in a swirl of amazement when Mlle. Thioux said, “Bonjour,” to me. And began giving directions in French. That was the tone of Mrs. Hocking’s school, then but a marvelous experiment. Everything was over our heads all the time. But within reach. We were always pulling ourselves up to exciting new levels.

Beach erosion threatens seaside homes.

The sensory detail (shuffling downstairs, shoes grating on the concrete floor) mixed with almost mystical language (vanished in a swirl of amazement, a marvelous experiment) help crystallize this story as a very important moment in time. And more than 100 years later—this same immersive and enchanting learning thrives on Shady Hill’s campus, embodied in the school’s unique Central Subject approach.

And here’s a tale from Branksome Hall, an all-girls’ school in Toronto, told to us by an alum:

I was at a track meet a couple of years ago and another school’s tent started to blow away. All their girls just stood there screaming under the tent. Our girls said, why don’t they just hold onto the tent? A Branksome girl holds her own tent.

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 The elements of craft

All folklore contains three common elements: timeless relevance, a shared belief, and a memorable takeaway point or lesson.

Timeless relevance
The Shady Hill and Branksome Hall stories remain as meaningful today as 40 years ago (and as they will 40 years into the future) because they crystallize a moment that speaks powerfully to the very essence of the institution. A story that continues to be told by your community is a story worth telling, and retelling, to prospects.

Shared belief
Every school community holds distinctive values that influence how the school operates year after year. For Shady Hill, encouraging the imaginative, intellectual bravery of each incandescent mind, no matter a child’s age, represents a foundational principle of the school. In the case of Branksome Hall, the school community believes that young women should learn to be independent and courageous. Each story demonstrates a core belief, which not only reinforces internal cohesion but can serve to attract best-fit families.

Takeaway point
“A Branksome girl holds her own tent.” These seven words succinctly and memorably communicate one of the many transformative outcomes of a Branksome education.

Each story’s lesson holds an opportunity to communicate what your school and only your school instills in students.

Good stories transport us, change us, inspire, encourage, and teach. So when puzzling over how to convince another raft of prospective families that your school isn’t only great, but different, consider that an entire history of stories waits to be rediscovered, collected, and retold. The first step is to listen for them.

Precise, interesting, and true: how modifiers can invigorate your school’s marketing language

by Dr. Ann Gelder, CRANE writer 

The road to hell is paved with adverbs.
–Stephen King
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Can Stephen King help you market your school?

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Surely no one knows more than Stephen King about the road to hell—or successful writing. And many education professionals seem to agree with his view of modifiers. Adverbs as well as adjectives, they believe, are at best unnecessary adornments to the central message, and at worst insincere, even false.

But is spare, unadorned prose the best path for conveying your institution’s identity?

At CRANE, we take King’s point as a caution, not a doctrine. We believe there’s another road, paved with elegantly deployed modifiers, that can lead prospective families, honestly and effectively, to choosing your school.

King dislikes adverbs for two main reasons. First, as he explains in On Writing, a Memoir of the Craft, they can indicate weakness in the surrounding prose:

Consider the sentence He closed the door firmly. It’s by no means a terrible sentence (at least it’s got an active verb going for it), but ask yourself if firmly really needs to be there. You can argue that it expresses a degree of difference between He closed the door and He slammed the door, and you’ll get no argument from me … but what about context? What about all the enlightening (not to say emotionally moving) prose which came before He closed the door firmly? Shouldn’t this tell us how he closed the door?

You’ll get no argument from us on the importance of active verbs (He closed the door rather than The door was closed by him) or of specificity (choosing slammed vs. closed). Making such decisions, word by word, sentence by sentence, remains critical to good writing—whether it’s a suspense novel or a school’s About Us page.

We also agree that the context of every sentence matters. You can’t expect one sentence, and certainly not one adverb in that sentence, to carry the show when the rest of the actors aren’t doing their jobs.

But what if you have met these requirements? Does that render all adverbs—and adjectives—unnecessary?

Not—as King himself suggests here—if you need to make fine distinctions in meaning. And, because you’re writing about what makes your school stand out from all other top schools in your area, that’s exactly what you’re doing.

By all means, ask yourself if firmly really needs to be there. But remember that sometimes, the answer is yes. Other times, you may still need a modifier—just a different one.

Which brings us to King’s second point:

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[Adverbs] are like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day … fifty the day after that … and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally,  completely, and profligately covered with dandelions.

It’s certainly possible to overuse modifiers. Especially—as King hints—if those particular modifiers are not good. Of the three adverbs he highlights here, two—totally and completely—just can’t do the work. Sensing their inadequacy, the writer (that is, the struggling writer King’s pretending to be here) starts piling on more of the same, in an effort to shore up the words’ weakness. The reader, in turn, detects the writer’s lack of confidence, and so misses or doubts the underlying message—the lawn, as it were.

On the other hand, profligately is an interesting, specific adverb that looks bad only because of the other, unhelpful words leading up to it. To us, that’s a crucial distinction that King’s anti-adverbial zeal glosses over.

Instead of categorizing all modifiers as weeds, what if you carefully plant only precise, interesting, and true modifiers in your prose? Might the beautiful green expanse of your message leap forth even more vividly?

Take a look at the Portrait of a Graduate page on the website of St. George’s Independent School,* paying special attention to the adverbs and adjectives. What do you think?

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*St. George’s is a CRANE client.

Warming your website welcome letter: from navigational chart to intriguing invitation

by Dr. Ann Gelder, CRANE writer 

The newest computer can merely compound, at speed,
the oldest problem in the relations between human beings,
and in the end the communicator will be confronted
with the old problem of what to say and how to say it.

–Edward R. Murrow

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In approximately one million ways, computers have compounded the problem of what to say, and how we say it.

Your school’s website presents a case in point. Especially as busy, distracted, often anxious prospective parents comb through your site—plus those of five or ten or more other schools— looking for … what, exactly?

AP offerings and athletic teams, college matriculation lists and tuition costs—yes, no doubt. But above and beyond the nuts and bolts, your prospects seek a way in.

Not just your admissions procedures, but the key to understanding who you are as a school. For that, more often than not, they turn to the Head of School’s Welcome page.

And then, just possibly, they turn away again.

Because, just possibly, the welcome letter wasn’t quite what they were hoping for. Instead of quickly and powerfully conveying what your school, and only your school, offers, the letter might, for example, dash through a few paragraphs of generic jargon (“We value critical thinking, diversity, and a whole-child approach”), followed by a brief and probably unnecessary site-navigation guide (“Click on Athletics to learn about our sports programs”). And so, rather than “Welcome! Come on in!,” the prospect may hear, “Move along. Nothing more to see here.”

We’re not saying that every school’s welcome letter reads like this. Even if many do, they haven’t necessarily lost a prospect. But a less-than-optimal welcome letter represents a missed opportunity to draw the prospect further into your school’s world.

So what goes into a really welcoming welcome letter?

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Take a look at your letter, and see if it includes these essential elements:

  • A clear, differentiating statement of your school’s vision. What kinds of individuals, thinkers, and citizens do you help create? How and why? *

At Langley, we know children’s social and emotional acuity is critical to their academic success—that’s why we intentionally nurture both in equal measure. We graduate uncommonly optimistic, grounded, poised, and kind learners and thinkers—citizens of the world, wholly prepared to thrive in the nation’s top high schools, and to lead lives of integrity and self-defined purpose. (Elinor Scully, The Langley School, McLean, Virginia)

  • Specific, differentiating examples of your vision in action.

Trevor’s school architecture embodies [our] commitment to children. Student-centered common spaces define the Trevor experience. Here, teachers and students collaborate in a dynamic manner, and together, navigate a classic curriculum that leads to academic mastery, innovative thinking, and a global perspective. (Scott R. Reisinger, Trevor Day School, New York, New York)

  • A compelling sense of what it’s like to learn and grow at this school every day, not just for students, but for parents, teachers, and staff members, too.

You hear, in the laughter and excitement of our lower school students, the lure of curiosity and the thrill of discovery. You see, in the faces of our middle school students, the joy they find in discovering emerging interests and latent talents. You feel, in the passionate exchanges among our upper school students, the confidence that comes when sustained and focused investigations reveal to them their own values and convictions. For all of our students, learning is powerful and transformative, and it’s a great pleasure to watch it unfold. (Christopher P. Garten, The Seven Hills School, Cincinnati, Ohio)

  • A warm, engaging voice that doesn’t just tell prospects who you are, but actually embodies your school’s and your head’s (merged) personalities.

When I walk through our light-filled hallways and see our 4th graders discussing the nuances of evolution and revolution then and now, Kindergarteners installing Goldsworthy-inspired art in our hallways, 2nd graders preparing to present their history of the Seaport to a community board hearing, 4-year-olds performing plays based on original beanstalk stories that grew out of their study of edible plants… I know we have unearthed a secret that many have spoken about but not enough experience: powerful, deep learning is joyful. (Allison Gaines Pell, The Blue School, New York, New York)

In each of these letters, the schools, through their heads, express themselves. In a few paragraphs, they give prospects a memorable and meaningful sense of who they are, what they do, and—always, always, always—why.

sm-Oakwood_ATP_0515126_LR* *Disclosure: Each of these schools has been a CRANE client.