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.


“Save an orange for me!”

It was an evening of stories. A parent told about getting her first “F” on a math exam and her teary phone call home to tell her dad that college wasn’t for her. A teacher shared the experience of being cut from choir in sixth grade, when everyone else in her circle of friends made it. “And in sixth grade,” she said “my friends were my world.” I remembered aloud striking out in T-ball and feeling devastated. I had failed, the six year old me thought, therefore I’m a failure.

photo (25)We told hopeful stories too: of the sister who tried out new jobs every few years, just so she could have new experiences, and was good at them; of the coach who encouraged his players to take chances and not dwell on failure; and of working hard to succeed, believing it possible, and pushing through challenges to learn, grow, and thrive.

It was our first Diegueño Book Club, and a wonderful collection of parents and teachers joined me in our media center to discuss Carol Dweck’s book Mindset.

Hearing the many voices from around the table helped underscore the relevance of the book, as well as the longstanding truths Dweck fleshes out. An English teacher pointed out that for years she’d been answering her students when they said they couldn’t do something with the reply “You can’t do it yet!” All of us live or work with young people, and we saw the huge opportunities we have to engage with the kids in our lives in a way we might promote a growth mindset, even as we see in our kids students with both fixed and growth ways of looking at the world.

Our diverse perspectives around the table shared some similarities. Many of us had begun our lives with what we recognized now as a fixed mindset, and most could point to a watershed moment when that fixed mindset no longer worked for us, when we had a choice: give up or move forward.

One of my favorite stories of the night came from a parent recalling her experience of going out for the cross country team in high school. She was a swimmer, she said, and tried running only to find out that she was the slowest on the team. Determined to finish, and to keep a positive attitude, she would call ahead to her friends: “Save an orange for me!” And keep running.

She believed she could get better, and that she was growing from this experience, even if she wasn’t finding the success she saw in other areas of her life. Without a delusion that she’d be improving so much she would win a shelf of trophies, she persevered with a smile.

It was inspiring to see our group of interesting and interested adults all making connections to our own lives and thinking about our kids (either our biological kids, or the 957 students at Diegueño ). Our conversation, rooted in Dweck’s book, moved from the volleyball court to corporate America, and from the hospital to the Thanksgiving table.

We reflected on the idea that people with a growth mindset “believe that a person’s true potential is unknown (and unknowable); that it’s impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil, and training.”

And then, by way of our own high school and college experiences, we made our way back to our own students’ classrooms.

Knowing that real learning involves some struggle, we talked about how we could promote opportunities for students to wrestle with ideas and engage in productive struggle. Classrooms are safe environments in which students can learn to face uncertainty, work through unknowing, and build the academic resiliency needed to persevere in the face of the unknown.

We all discussed how good it can be if the student who finds stress and temporary failure does so in an environment that encourages them to work through the problem, with a teacher who inspires them to try, and peers who are also struggling in plain view. How much better to have this happen earlier and in a safe space, and learn the skills to avoid that failed math test and tearful phone call home from college.

We also talked about how tough nurturing the sprouting shoot of real learning can be beneath the harsh sun of grades and the anxiety that comes from a mark not being as high as students and parents would like. Communication can help, and we all have work to do.

How we could encourage students to develop growth mindsets took up much of our conversation. We agreed that we were partners in this enterprise: parents, teachers, students, and even administrators like me.

photo (29)After talking about the importance of all our work, and honestly after laughing a lot too, we ended the night on a positive note. Reading Mindset, we agreed, had positively impacted our interactions with our kids, our students (and even our in-laws).

We left the evening knowing that we may not have all the answers (…yet), but we’re among friends, all of us running at our own pace toward the same goal of helping our kids. And we know those ahead of us, or enough of them, will listen when we raise our voice and say, with hope and a belief we can improve: “Save an orange for me!”


In just two weeks parents, teachers, and students will gather together in our library for our first Diegueño Book Club. A few folks have already told me that they’re coming, and two parents proudly held up their copies of Carol Dweck’s Mindset at our PTSA meeting last week.

I’m looking forward to the chance to sit down with members of our school family and talk about the big ideas Dweck offers. Good discussion has a way of bringing people closer together, and Mindset is a book filled with the fodder for interesting conversation.

photoWhen a math teacher told me that her copy had arrived and a student said that she and her mom were reading the book together, I knew those interesting conversations were on the horizon.

And while the evening our Diegueño Book Club meets will be one place where we talk about growth mindsets, I’m optimistic that those conversations will also happen on car trips and around kitchen tables across the neighborhoods that surround our school.

Late in the book Dweck writes:

“Tomorrow, listen to what you say to your kids and tune in to the message you’re sending. Are they messages that say: You have permanent traits and I’m judging them? Or are they messages that say “You’re a developing person and I’m interested in your development?”

It’s a question I’m interested in more people considering.

As a school community, I’m convinced that we are committed to helping students develop into the amazing young people they will be.

If who we are was cemented when we were in middle school, heaven help us all; I’d be an insecure, stumbling, red-head who routinely felt lost and a little out of step.

Helping to contribute to a school culture that embraces the notion that we all can continue to grow and learn is something many, many members of our Diegueño Family see as important.

On December 9th we’ll gather in our library to talk together. Before then, and after too, I look forward to the conversations happening in lunchrooms, grandparents’ family rooms, and in camping chairs on the sidelines of soccer games. I’m excited about the potential for us to use this opportunity to connect with each other, support each other, and grow.


mindsetRather than be the guy who just wishes everyone at his school would read Mindset by Carol Dweck, a powerhouse of a book with huge implications for teaching, parenting, and living life, I decided to try something different. I wrote about my first reading of the book this summer, and since that time have been ruminating on how I can encourage a discussion of the ideas on my campus. I know that I can’t force anyone to pick up the book, nor would I want to be some bibliocrat who did, but the thought of inviting people in my school community to join me in a discussion about Mindset struck me as exciting. If parents and teachers, heck students too, were to really talk about the “growth mindset” ideas in Dweck’s book some pretty cool possibilities could emerge about the way we work together to support kids.

Next step: A Diegueño book club! I’m inviting my school family to read Mindset this month and then come together in December to talk about the ideas Dweck presents. For those who do, I think there will be lots to discuss about and connections to be made to how we encourage students.

In a nutshell the book presents the differences between a “fixed mindset” and “growth mindset” using examples that make the ideas clear. As an educator, I’ve seen both approaches to life in my students, my teachers, and (if I’m honest) myself.

Put simplistically, those with fixed mindsets believe that people are generally “good” or “bad” at certain things, and that they reach a limit, the ability to draw for example, and plateau. Failure, in this case, signals hitting that limit.

A growth mindset says that improvement is always possible, and that setbacks teach us as well as successes. With the belief that effort and resiliency combine for the greatest results, this way of looking at life suggests persistence and the ability to see challenges as speed bumps, not roadblocks, leads to progress. It’s about taking a failure (“I can’t draw a monkey!” and adding one word: “I can’t draw a monkey …yet.”)

The implications for learning are great.

At their best, schools are havens for growth mindsets, as resilient students meet teachers who believe in them and push them to succeed. Sometimes obstacles get in the way of believing that we all can learn and improve, and I’m optimistic that carving out some time to read Dweck’s book and talk about it may help us all focus on the transformative possibilities in our students and ourselves.

Will a Diegueño book club work? Can open discussion about big ideas succeed in our school community? Will really thinking about these growth mindset ideas change the world, or at least our corner of it? I’m not sure …yet.


The first Diegueño Book Club, discussing Mindset by Carol Dweck, will be on December 9th from 5:00-6:30 in the media center. This gives us time to read the book, chew on the ideas a bit, and think about some things we’d like to talk about together.


I’d heard about mindsets, read articles, attended workshops. Friends who are educators had talked with me about Carol Dweck’s work, and I’d bobbed my head. My wife, her masters degree in psychology, had discussed the importance of the ideas Dweck put forth in her book “Mindset” (especially when I’d experienced setbacks and was glooming my way around the house). I thought I’d heard; I know I’d nodded, and I believed I had a pretty good idea about the importance of bringing a “Growth Mindset” to my life and work. Then this summer, on the doorstep of a new principal job, I made it a project to add “Mindset” to my summer reading list. Finally I started to listen.

This notion of “Fixed” and “Growth” mindsets, that had been buzzing in the air around me for almost a decade finally landed on my nose and began a conversation. In Dweck’s short book (perfect for July, the educator’s month for reading) I saw both a clear explanation of these two ways of engaging in the world and great examples that brought the importance of acting mindfully (as an educator and as a parent) home.

In the “Growth Mindset” I recognized some of the people I admire: a student who delivered his graduation speech on his journey to the US from a small village in Columbia, learning English as a third language, after Spanish and his own native dialect; a football player I coached who lacked the initial physical ability he needed to start on the team, but worked hard and learned from his struggles, ending up a very good player; and a student who took the Beginning Drawing class I taught, doubting her abilities until she saw progress, then progressing beyond the rest of the class as she realized how much she loved putting pencil to paper. These students had inspired me, and as I saw a way to look at the common denominator of “Growth Mindset” (with a focus on learning from mistakes and embracing adversity as a way to get better), I realized how important it is to cultivate this way of engaging with the world both in myself and in my school.

These students were not deterred by failing. They were not demoralized by not getting things right. Instead, all three, like so many whose lives are made richer because of their perseverance and positive attitude, stuck to the belief that they could improve, they would make progress, and they would not be defined by setback. We sometimes say that “all children can learn,” but these students lived it. Dweck’s examples are fantastic, but these students brought “Growth Mindset” to life for me.

I also clearly saw the “Fixed Mindset” (viewing challenges as threatening and failures as catastrophic) and recognized more of this in me than I’d like to admit. As a student, an athlete, and a young teacher, I worked hard, but felt like things either came easy or were tragic failures. I believed that I was able to succeed not because of the work I put in, but because I was somehow simply a good student, a good athlete, a good teacher, and that when I wasn’t successful the cost was more than a low grade, a strikeout, or a lousy lesson plan; I felt like the failures were me.

This, coupled with an upbringing filled with more love than responsibility, helped to foster in me a way of looking at the world that made challenges tough. And challenges always come.

In the face of those challenges, I’m fortunate to have great support, a wise wife, and enough brains to realize that the best way to succeed was to stick to it, whatever it is, and not lose hope. As a person who strives for optimism and wants to continue to learn, “Mindset” reminded me to stay focused on engagement, not the fear of failure, and learning, not the measurement of success. I think I’ve gotten better about this as I’ve gotten older, and know I want to continue to grow as I move forward as a parent and a professional. A “Growth Mindset” is something I can choose.

Reading Dweck’s book was also a nice reminder of how important it can be to go back to the source of things. The discussion of mindsets had been going on all around me, but it wasn’t until I made the time to pick up what she’d written that I really got it. I know many folks reading this will have already read her book, but for any like me who thought the summary was enough, I encourage you to spend the time to read “Mindset” and see if you feel the same inspiration I do.

I am inspired, and now feel compelled to take the student-supporting work back to my school.

The challenge, as I relate it to the work I do, is to collaborate with the teachers, parents, students, and staff at my school to create a culture that goes beyond talking about “Growth Mindset” and rolls up its sleeves and actually gets to work. As we learn together we foster this way of thinking. As we prepare for life (not just tests) and view the education process as more than a series of exercises and exams, we grow. And as we recognize that we all can get better when we’re held to high standards and supported to reach those rigorous goals, we bring out the best in education.

I’ve got a lot to learn about what this looks like every day, but I’m fortunate to work with some pretty great people (some of whom will be getting a copy of “Mindset” as a gift in the very near future), and I’m ready to learn from both successes and failures along the way. Dweck describes the culture created by a “Growth Mindset” as “an inclusive, learning-filled, rollicking journey.” There’s a freedom in that, and one that I look forward to bringing from my beach reading in July to my work in the fall.

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