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.

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Unleashing Innovation

courosEarly in The Innovator’s Mindset author George Couros invites educators to ask the question: “Would I want to be a learner in my own classroom?” It’s a straightforward question, but one that if answered honestly might give us pause.

I’m a principal now, so in addition to thinking about the hundreds of students who passed through my English classroom throughout my dozen years of teaching, I bent the question to my current role and thought (ahead of our preservice meetings and year of early release Wednesday staff development days): Would I want to be a teacher in the school where I’m the principal?

Good books prompt us to think, and Couros’ latest does just that.

I was given the book as a part of my district’s commitment to leaders reflecting on our practice and continuing to grow and learn together. We’ll discuss the book at our beginning of the year Admin Meeting and as building administrators throughout the fall. Rich with ideas, some deliciously daring, The Innovator’s Mindset has the potential to spark not only meaningful discussion but also meaningful change.

I use the descriptor “meaningful” purposefully here; as Couros notes: “different for the sake of different can be a waste of time.” I hate wasting time.

Instead, the change talked about in The Innovator’s Mindset is thoughtful, ambitious, and creative. I like Couros’ student centered approach, and find in his focus on creating a real resonance with the work I see on my campus, an arts based magnet academy where students are constantly making art in one form or another.

With this relevance firmly in my head, when I finished my first reading of The Innovator’s Mindset four concepts struck me as important to my own work this fall. This is far from an adequate summary of Couros or any sort of thorough analysis; these are simply some of the topics that hit me the hardest with regard to my own work as a principal this year.  They are, in a nutshell…

Focus on kids
“If students leave school less curious than when they started, we have failed them.”

We’re in the student business, there’s no question about that, and just about every educator I’ve met got into teaching because she or he wanted to make a difference in the lives of kids. Reminding ourselves of this every fall is vital to setting the trajectory of the year ahead.

To that end, this year, on the first morning of the first day teachers are back on campus, we’ll begin our inaugural staff meeting listening to a group of students.

I met with our student government leaders over the summer and they were gracious enough to agree to come talk with the staff. What will they say? I have no idea; this isn’t something to be scripted, it is an opportunity for us to listen.

And that listening needs to expand beyond the first meeting. As we listen to students, really hear what they care about, and can help to guide them as they gain the skills and knowledge they need to achieve their goals, we have an opportunity to make a difference. Couros reminds us that “if we want meaningful change, we have to make a connection to the heart before we can make a connection to the mind.” Students read our hearts faster than we can hand out a syllabus, and as they see our caring and commitment to helping them, we help to create an environment where passion and purpose blossom.

The Innovator’s Mindset talks about this in terms of helping students be creators. As students not only understand concepts, but are able to put their learning into practice. It is the difference, according to Couros, of empowering students, not just engaging them, and supports the idea that “real learning begins when students create.”

Be willing to dive in
“If we want innovation to flourish in our schools, we have to be willing to immerse ourselves in the environment where it is going to happen.”

This isn’t at my desk.

As a principal, immersing myself in the environment where innovation will take place means being in classrooms, in labs, in the theater, the dance studio, the darkroom (yes, my school still has one), where students make films, discuss poetry, sculpt, sing, and play instruments. It means engaging with students every day, asking questions, listening when they answer.

It also means getting involved.

I appreciated Couros’ reminder that “it is my job to learn first if I want to lead well,” and to do that means sitting shoulder to shoulder with students and teachers and engaging in the process of learning.

In addition to doing my best to see school through the eyes of students, I hope this year to continue one of the practices I’ve most appreciated as a principal: teaching. Throughout my years as a site administrator I’ve had the privilege of teachers allowing me to step into a classroom and engage with students. I’ve taught Sherlock Holmes to English classes, Emily Dickinson during National Poetry Month, and swapped places with a cartooning teacher. Reading Couros inspired me to bring a spirit of innovation to the teaching I hope to do this year, being willing to take risks and even fall on my face as I encourage my staff to innovate and take chances.

Share
“Culture is developed by the expectations, interactions, and ultimately, the relationship of the entire learning community.”

How we all work together helps to define our school culture, and from the outset of the year I want to do all I can to support my staff in being connected, having real conversations about how we help support students, and working (and playing) together as a cohesive school community.

If culture is truly the result of the factors Couros describes, we do well to ask ourselves not only what is our school culture, but how can we each contribute to making that culture as positive and productive as it can be.

Couros spends time talking about the importance of educators being connected and of “build[ing] each other up to build something together” and I see this focus on making it safe to share ideas, dreams, and strategies as a part of the work to be done, particularly with the addition of professional development time this school year, when we will have a chance to prove true the line from The Innovator’s Mindset: “If innovation is going to be a priority in education, we need to create a culture where trust is the norm.”

Create opportunities for others to succeed …and to fail safely too
“Learning is messy, and we have to be comfortable with risk, failure, growth, and revision. Once people see leaders take risks, they are more likely to try their own ideas and stretch themselves – and their students. Giving people license to take risks by tapping into their abilities helps create a space where innovative ideas and learning flourish.”

It seems striking to me that early in The Innovator’s Mindset Couros notes the importance of empathy in the learning process. This quality of understanding and really being able to share the feelings of those around us is important to us as humans in general and educators (and students too) in particular. As we as teachers and administrators “think about the classroom environment and learning opportunities from the point of view of the student, not the teacher” (to use Couros’ words) we create the possibility of more meaningful engagement and empowerment. Great teachers do this all the time, and I see in The Innovator’s Mindset a reminder of the importance of this student centered approach a lesson for me as a principal as well.

I’m preparing the opening preservice days for the year now; will I be able to develop opportunities I would appreciate as a teacher? Am I thinking about the “staff meeting” from the point of view of the principal or the teachers and staff?

The answer to that question, and the answer to the greater question of whether we are taking the time to see the world and our collective learning through the eyes of others, can help to define the quality of our school’s culture and the possibilities we afford our students and ourselves.

This empathy also helps us have the patience and embrace the suspension of disbelief that allows others to take risks and try try new things. The best teachers I have ever known (and the best principals too) put great emphasis on creating opportunities for others to stretch themselves and succeed. These stretches mean that there is always the “risk” of failure, but when I have seen gifted teachers working with students, they make it feel not like a risk, but an opportunity.

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This incomplete collection of thoughts is just a first reaction to Couros’ call to action. Other ideas like “School versus Learning,” the importance of being “networked,” and the working “inside the box” are rich enough to anchor posts of their own, and I know will be points of discussion throughout the year.

Can I be an innovative principal? I hope so. Will I help to create an atmosphere for students, staff, and parents that empowers learning, unleashes talent, and fosters a culture of creativity? That’s the kind of school I want to be a part of.