Homework on the Table; Music in the Air

My daughter taught herself how to play the Stone Temple Pilots tune “Truce” on the piano, finding the sheet music online, listening with a musician’s ear to the song on her iPod, and practicing in the quiet of her own time to produce a haunting tune so heavy with emotion that hearing it float from our family room makes me want to cry.

She’s taken piano lessons for years because she likes playing the piano, and the songs she comes back to, “Misty” and “Georgia” and a handful of pieces whose composers I’m not sure of (but with melodies now familiar) are the ones she enjoys hearing. For the most part they’re songs from the piano books her teacher gave her, but “Truce,” that’s hers.

gift of failureI thought about my daughter’s piano playing when I read Jessica Lahey’s book The Gift of Failure, the subject of our first ACMA Book Club on December 5th. Leading up to that gathering, It’s my hope to share some articles and interviews about Lahey’s ideas and offer a short post for each of the three sections that make up her book. Here’s the first…

As a dad and an educator I picked up The Gift of Failure looking for ideas that might help me help the kids in my life. From the title and a handful of reviews I’d read, I supposed this would mean finding ways to get them to see that failure was a natural part of learning and that hard work and a growth mindset could go a long way in supporting eventual success.

Part one begins with a nod to two iconic parents: Ma and Pa from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series, two stalwarts in the tradition of serious and steady parenting. So glowing with nostalgia as to be almost parables, Wilder’s stories of Ma and Pa show parents in traditional and familiar roles raising kids to be resilient, (mostly) obedient, and ready for the 19th century world they would be living in. She juxtaposes this with the pressure on today’s parents, for whom the role of “ma” or “pa” feels very different.

Those differences felt very real to me, and while Lahey certainly didn’t have me longing for any “good old days” (of starvation and hardship), her perspective on the changes to what is expected of parents (and what we expect of ourselves) was rich with wisdom.

Next, Lahey offers a parenting history lesson from Locke to Spock, making meaningful connections to her own parenting and the contemporary examples she chooses to include. The immediacy of her own journey helped me connect with what she was saying, even as she spent considerable time on self esteem and narcissism and I found myself uncertain of her strongest criticism of the “self-esteem movement.” That said, the concept of making decisions as a parent, and an educator, with a focus on “long term learning” resonated with me as did the idea of “parenting for tomorrow.”

To do so Lahey lays out a compelling argument against the control we sometimes grasp for in both parenting and education. “Just about anything humans perceive as controlling,” she writes, “is detrimental to long term motivation, and therefore to learning.”

That line is one I’m excited to talk more about with parents, teachers, and especially students when we get together in December.

Lahey goes on to discuss the benefits of “desirable difficulties” and the addictive nature of success (when that success is the student’s own). “Truce,” I thought. Or my son’s adventures in Minecraft. Or the hundred works of art I’ve seen in studios and classrooms at ACMA.

Part one of The Gift of Failure continues with a practical example of controlling versus autonomy supporting parenting that reads like the example from a textbook on ethics.

The scenario: kid forgets to take completed homework to school and parent spots it on the kitchen table with enough time to drive it in before class.

Lahey fleshes out the example in ways both philosophical and personal. Her honesty and empathy, coupled with her dedication to “parenting for tomorrow,” shine through in this section of the text. She challenges readers to put themselves in the situation, something she makes as easy to picture as it is difficult to process.

One joy of reading Lahey’s book as a part of a greater school community will be listening to the diverse perspectives of our teachers, parents, and students. This homework on the table question is one we’ll be sure to discuss.

A shout out to Carol Dweck and her book Mindset ends the first section of The Gift of Failure. Cautioning us not to sacrifice credibility on “the flimsy altar of acclaim,” Lahey provides a succession of short lessons applicable to any of us who work with kids.

Being an educator, like being a parent, brings equal parts anxiety and angst. At best, however, it those emotions pale in comparison to the hope and anticipation our kids inspire.

The Gift of Failure, while acknowledging our challenges, suggests that there is much we can do, and allow our students to do, to support that hope.

One of those steps, I’d suggest, is connecting with each other, parents, educators, and students too, to support one another. We’ll connect at 6:30 pm on December 5th in the Arts & Communication Magnet Academy library. See you there!

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Oregon October

The pewter skies
and perpetually wet blacktop
harbingers of fall
announce sweatshirt weather
cold ears
and clouds
of exhaled breath

Until an October sun
bright
unexpected
perhaps the most
wonderful possibility of the season
allows us to turn our faces to the sky
and feel
the taste of apples
rustle of leaves
and smell of the earliest fireplaces.

At school, students
grown accustomed to the rhythm of the year
daydream spring
textbooks whispering winter
summer so far away

And teachers too
hunkering toward December
right themselves from leaning into autumn

Dig hands into pockets
and smile up at the sun.

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Leaving the Din of Trifles

So, Emerson.

He is my dad’s favorite American author and as such was a constant presence in the literary landscape of my childhood. I came to him on my own terms in college: I was a double major in literature and philosophy, just Ralph Waldo Emerson’s kind of guy I suppose.

Truth be told, Emerson isn’t one I’ve spent lots of time with since I was an undergraduate, but every once in a while I dip into an anthology and am reminded of why my dad likes him as much as he does.

This weekend was one of those once in a whiles.

As a principal ushering in the start of the school year, I turned to “Education,” a posthumously published essay cribbed from notes and commencement addresses and filled with ideas as challenging and thought provoking as any in today’s education landscape.

With a mix nineteenth century circumlocution and New England bluntness, Emerson begins by praising the value of school, writing:

Humanly speaking, the school, the college, society, make the difference between men. All the fairy tales of Aladdin or the invisible Gyges or the talisman that opens kings’ palaces or the enchanted halls underground or in the sea, are any fictions to indicate the one miracle of intellectual enlargement. When a man stupid becomes a man inspired, when one and the same man passes out of the torpid into the perceiving state, leaves the din of trifles, the stupor of the senses, to enter into the quasi-omniscience of high thought–up and down, around, all limits disappear.”

This idea of disappearing limits, of “intellectual enlargement,” of expanding horizons is as worthy a goal in this present century as it was in the nineteenth. Today we talk about education being the gateway to success, and spend much time justifiably focused on equity, knowing that helping every student leave the “din of trifles” and step onto a path of growth will help foster a life enlarged by opportunity.

Emerson’s essay marches through a series of nineteenth century ideas as antiquated in concept as they are in language, and emerges from the intellectual weeds of his time, stumbling into the bright sunlight of the grand and timeless notion: “Education should be as broad as man.”

IMG_4616What he means by this, he explains, is that “the great objective of education should be commensurate with the object of life.” This coupling of grand notion and practical application, similar to contemporary notions of a pedagogy beyond regurgitation, challenges educators to push students to learn, understand, and apply that learning and understanding.

Are we doing this today?

Were educators doing this in Emerson’s time?

Writ large, the answer is “no” or at least not always. The many and frequent measures of academic success: grades, tests, and benchmarks complicate the free acquisition of knowledge and thorough engagement, but Emerson counters with an argument for optimism that is timeless: “I call our system a system of despair,” he writes, “and I find all the correction, all the revolution that is needed and that the best spirits of this age promise, in one word, in Hope.”

Hope, that thing with feathers that perches on the soul, as transformative then as it is now, is something that fills the best educators I know. It allows us to see beyond despair, or the more common annoyance, and focus on the important work of helping support every student in our schools.

Emerson suggests that the answer needed, the “revolution” in education he would like to see to help students become “great hearted” adults, is in transcending what he calls “neat and safe uniformity” and seeing students for who they are.

He suggests that students bring a “variety of genius” to school, and that they are motivated by different passions and purposes. He recognizes, in his very nineteenth century vernacular, two kinds of learners, introvert and extrovert, whom he describes as “obscure youth” learning in “solitude” and the “young giant, brown from his hunting tramp” lustily engaging with life. For both he praises the value of imagination, writing: “the secret of Education lies in respecting the pupil.”

For the introvert this means being allowed to learn “the literature of his virtues; and, because of the disturbing effect of passion and sense, which by a multitude of trifles impede the mind’s eye from the quiet search of that fine horizon-line which truth keeps- the way to knowledge and power has ever been an escape from too much engagement with affairs and possessions.” Don’t make the kid read aloud. As Emerson says later: “There is no want of example of great men, great benefactors, who have been monks and hermits in habit.”

For the happy hunter, learning true to “nature” is a rumbling of “stormy genius” and Emerson suggests that “if he can turn his books to such picturesque account in his fishing and hunting, it is easy to see how his reading and experience, as he has more of both, will interpenetrate each other. And every one desires that this pure vigor of action and wealth of narrative, cheered with so much humor and street rhetoric, should be carried: into the habit of the young man, purged of its uproar and rudeness, but with all its vivacity entire.” Let the kid talk. Let her tell stories. Guide her to less uproar and rudeness, but not at the expense of that pure vigor that makes her who she is.

For both types of learners Emerson argues that “the secret of Education lies in respecting the pupil,” an idea not so far from much of educational theory today.

This isn’t to say, acknowledges Emerson, that we should “throw up the reins of public and private discipline [or] leave the young child to the mad career of his passions and whimsies, and call this anarchy a respect for the child’s nature.”

“Respect the child,” he advises, “respect him to the end, but also respect yourself. Be the companion of his thought, the friend of his friendship, the lover of his virtue, but not kinsman to his sin.” Teachers matter much, and that balance of respect and guidance is as real today as it was when Emerson was writing.

Put simply, Emerson’s focus is on allowing the natural wonder, the “perpetual romance of new life,” to exist side by side with instruction around how to learn. A student “can learn anything which is important to him now that the power to learn is secured; as mechanics say, when one has learned the use of tools, it is easy to work at a new craft.”

That learning how happens step by step, and according to Emerson should never lose the “mutual delight” of teaching and learning. I’d add to that the delight of reading folks like Emerson.

I do my best to read books relevant to my work as a principal, Couros and Dweck, Brown and Lythcott-Haims on the shelf by my desk, but it’s important too not to ignore poetry, philosophy, and even a good kids book when as an educator I set my sights on leaving the din of trifles.

The Gift of Conversation

In the wild rumpus of modern day life one of the things educators, parents, and students do too little of is talking with one another about ideas. Sure we pull together to discuss particular crises, talk grades when the topic comes up, and address immediate challenges, but more seldom do we take a step back and talk about how we got to those situations, or how best we can work together to meet our greater collective goal of helping each of our students learn.

One modest way to confront this challenge of building collective perspective is to carve out time to gather and discuss a topic, inviting diverse points of view to speak, listen, and connect. Bookish as I am, I see a great catalyst for this kind of conversation as books.

To that end, we’re going to try something here at ACMA that I hope might get people talking with one another about how we best support each other and our students. On December 5th we’ll host our first ACMA Book Club.

IMG_4513In the couple of months between now and then, I invite students, parents, guardians, teachers, counselors, staff members, grandmas and grandpas, to read The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey. It’s an immensely readable book, with much to agree (and maybe even disagree) with, lots of real examples, and a spirit of hope that I think helps the very serious messages resonate.

As a principal and as a dad I found in Lahey’s book ideas to challenge my practice, inform my decisions, and get me to think about how I was supporting (or maybe even hindering) the kids in my life.

Does everyone need to agree with everything Lahey says? Heck, no, but I honestly believe that The Gift of Failure has the potential to spark some amazing conversations, and what better gift can we give each other in this busy world than an opportunity to talk with each other about how we might make a difference?

 

The ACMA Book Club will meet in the Arts & Communication Magnet Academy library on Tuesday, December 5th from 6:30-8:00 pm. 

“Shopping” with Hawkgirl

My son has a collection of Hawkman comic books from the early 1960s. They’re goofy and grand, filled with morality and primary colors and a Kennedy era feel that DC Comics thought was appropriate for younger readers.

Hawkman smokes a pipe, for example, villains ply their trade “for the thrill of stealing,” and our heroes travel through space to foil evil doers from Earth to Thangar …while wearing giant feathered wings.

Paging through the comics, I was struck by what the writers and illustrators in the early 1960s imagined as futuristic technology. Visiting their technologically advanced planet of Thangar, Hawkman and Hawkgirl (Hawkwoman would have been just too much for those swinging ‘60s comic book creators) have to readjust to a world far more wondrous than the third planet from the sun. The proof of this technological superiority: debit cards, recorded news on a big screen TV, and online “shopping,” so imaginary in 1962 that the word was put in quotation marks.

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Half a century ago these must have felt like big dreams, but today even the images seem quaint. Whither then our 21st century ideas of what the future will bring?

In education, as much as in comic books, comes the question: “What next?”

Just last night my wife and I were talking about our own experiences in school, complete with the clicking whir of film projectors and the tape recorded beeeep that prompted the AV Monitor to turn the knob on the filmstrip projector. (For my younger readers, those were days closer to 1962 than to 2017, in a time when the notion that every student could pull up their own video, educational or not, on a personal device would seem as strange as a half naked man with green pants and enormous wings. Strike that; YouTube would have seemed farther out than Hawkman.)

Today in schools we talk about cell phones and tablets and Chromebooks. We agonize over students being off task, nearly forgetting the days when we tucked comic books in our Trapper Keepers to read during class.

We talk a lot about paradigm shifts and technology changing everything, and I suppose that’s right, though when I walk into a classroom and see a great teacher connecting with students the common denominator is humanity, not technology.

Rather than frame the discussion in terms of “should we block Facebook?” I’d like to take a couple of paragraphs to wonder how we’ll look back on our behavior around technology in another fifty years.

Maybe fifty is too grand; I’ll be in my early 100s then and probably out of the education game. So… in ten years, what will our technology discussion look like in schools? I hope to still be a principal then, and I wonder what I’ll be talking with my students, parents, and staff about.

For perspective, ten years ago the hot topic of the day was this new portable device from Apple.

Ah, the iPhone.

It seems like this changed things a bit. To imagine what technology will look like in another ten years, both the technology we sanction in schools and the technology our students sneak in like comic books in a 1980s junior high, would be a fool’s errand.

To imagine why the students will use the technology, so magical and strange to our contemporary sensibilities, feels, well, possible. They will use the technology to learn.

…and play.

…and distract themselves from school when they get bored.

…and get in trouble.

…and communicate.

…and transport themselves from the classroom to the world beyond.

Just like we do.

I don’t know exactly what conversations I’ll be having with my staff in 2027, or how many on that staff will be cyborgs. Just kidding. I’ll guess that we’ll be talking about how we engage students, how we support them, and what we can do to spark curiosity.

Some will worry aloud about “kids today” and their fascination with the latest technological toy; others will ask themselves how they can harness those same devices to propel learning forward.

Socrates worried about writing, but seemed okay once he got the lads talking about big ideas. John Dewey was skeptical of direct instruction, but dug it when the kids started asking questions. Calculators, clickers, and Franklin Spellers all had their champions and detractors, and education has survived them all somehow, thank you very much. Some might even argue that students today have even greater opportunities to engage with school than they did when Hawkgirl was sitting on a Thangarian divan “shopping” on a TV screen.

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It’s our willingness to take the quotations off the unfamiliar that will allow us to think broadly enough to see that we learn as humans have always learned, in the context of our environment. That the environment changes is neither threatening nor sinister; it is a reality that we do well to accept. Doing so can do more than lower our anxiety about whatever technology will stream into our classrooms. It can help learning soar …like a hawk, of course.