A Couple of Jedi

I’m proudest that at the end of the visit my son insisted that the sandspeeder stayed with Papa.

IMG_5521It started as a Christmas present from my folks to my nine year old son, a Lego set that made his eyes widen. Sitting at the dining room table assembling his Jakku Quadjumper, my son seemed as happy as the proverbial clam. Midway through the big project my dad sat down next to him, looking from the visual directions to my son’s nimble hands dancing over the plastic blocks.

For the past few months, remembering has been a bit tougher for my dad, familiar things sometimes unfamiliar, and while his memory of people is unflagging, some of the complexity of life that he has always enjoyed wrestling with seem to be taking an upper hand.

But as he watched my son build, the expression on his face was a mixture of delight and curiosity. Bit by bit this spaceship was taking form, my son so focused on his work. I went into the kitchen for a cup of tea and by the time I got back something wonderful was happening: they were building together.

They’ve always been pals, but watching them now I saw something different. My son, patient and positive, helped guide my dad’s hands to the right blocks, put them together, and snap them into place. My dad, concentrating, listened to my son and smiled as they completed each step.

IMG_5581They stayed at it for the better part of an hour, leaning in to talk about the emerging spaceship, my son offering “great job!” after they finished each page.

Teaching. Learning. Collaborating. Creating. The principal I am saw something to admire.

The expression of happiness on both their faces as they presented the completed Jakku Quadjumper to my mom, my wife, and me was marvelous. That Lego set provided a path to something magic.

It’s the sort of magic that a principal like me longs to see in classrooms at my school, teaching and learning led by love and followed by building, the process of working together to construct something to be proud of. At its best learning is creating, making something (from robots to meaning) in an environment that is supportive, focused, and can be transformative. When that happens, lives change.

The next morning, a trip to the store for toothpaste and dental floss brought me near a toy aisle. I couldn’t resist.

By the afternoon our two Jedi were at it again, not Padawan and Master, just two noble knights working together to build a sandspeeder, the pile of Legos around them building blocks of memories.

About ten minutes into the build my dad looked up and said: “He’s a good foreman!” Then he smiled and they went back to building.

IMG_5572When we were ready to leave town the next morning, my son told me that we should leave the sandspeeder for Papa. “He might want to play with it,” he said. The perspective of a nine year old. “You bet,” I answered. “He might.”

And it was in this last kindness, on top of the patient collaboration I’d seen earlier, that I felt an overwhelming sense of joy.

As we begin a new calendar year I wish for every student a teacher with passion and patience, and for every teacher students with curiosity and a pinch of awe. For all I wish kindness and connections, the chance to build, the chance to learn from each other, and the chance to be proud, together, of a job well done.


What Matters

photo 1 (1)This winter my daughter, a serious fourth grader, made an amazing pilgrim diorama complete with balsa wood houses and goats made out of clay. She approached the hands on project with determination and imagination and came up with something she had a right to be proud of.

The educator in me, always watching what good teachers do, liked that she’d been given the freedom to choose her topic and what project she wanted to do, and appreciated that she’d then been able to present her work in front of her peers. A good lesson, I thought to myself, the kind of thing that doesn’t just happen on its own.

And as I was thinking this, I heard my six year old son in the next room talking aloud about Star Wars. He was alone, so I peeked in quietly and realized that he was up to something that was about to prove me wrong.

photo 2 (1)Legos Star Wars has stepped to the forefront of my son’s first grade imagination, armies of blocky plastic clonetroopers littering our family room floor. While I’d been in the kitchen watching my daughter wield a hot glue gun, my son had been creating a scene with his Legos, a complex, sprawling thing complete with droids, ships, and an inch tall Yoda. Without an “assignment” from school, he’d brought the same care and creativity to his project that my daughter brought to hers.

The talking I’d heard was my son explaining his work as he held our little video camera and shot footage of a tour of the scene he’d created. He’d seen a boy about his same age do something like this on YouTube, and was inspired to make his own.

These two examples of learning provided a strong reminder about the great power of the imagination and importance of relevance. Students will do what we assign to them, sometimes with passion, interest, and wonderful results. They’ll also do more things than we can imagine, and do them with as much care (or more) because they love what they’re doing.

I was reminded of the students I’ve known who live rich lives beyond the schoolhouse: the special education student who had a C+ in PE because he didn’t always dress out, but told me about the two marathons he’d run that year; the girl who volunteered at the animal shelter, helping do everything from feeding to helping vets heal animals; and the boy who spent two hours every morning working on his family’s dairy farm before coming to school, and then another hour milking between football practice and doing his homework.

Invariably these students were humble, mentioning their own non-school related accomplishments almost casually, or self deprecatingly. As I got them to talk about what they did, their pride and excitement would come through, and I always thought: how can I harness this in a way that works at school?

photo 2 (2)Through salons and senior projects I sometimes even succeeded. Though never often enough.

Thinking of these kids and my own, I believe that the best educators find ways for both guided instruction and freer exploration, celebration, and application of the things students love. Both are important to learning. As teachers, it’s up to us to help create opportunities for students to discover new (or new to them) things. Our own experiences can help us generate a passion for Spanish or sculpting, introduce students to Hamlet and haiku, and open the door to the scientific method and mathematical reasoning. And as we show students the value of coding and physical fitness, we do well to give credit to a well designed curriculum. My daughter knows more about the Plimoth Plantation than she did before she started sculpting goats, and I wouldn’t want my son’s understanding to start and end in a galaxy far, far away.

But that isn’t all that matters.

Allowing students to explore and share what they are passionate about can be life changing. Building on their own interests, whether baseball or bluegrass, can motivate students to achieve more academically. Reluctant readers sometimes invest more time in reading about subjects they care about, and those who wouldn’t think of giving an oral presentation can see the shackles of anxiety fall away when they’re telling others about a subject that matters to them.

Providing students with a framework for learning: academic vocabulary, the skills to discern quality content online, the ability to structure a presentation or an argument, is as important as giving them the freedom to explore topics they are interested in. Both, done well, can energize learning.

As we allow students to be the people they are, full of quirks and interests, passions and preferences, we begin to engage them as learners, not just as students.

photo 4 (1)We can still integrate the staples of a more traditional education; I’d never advocate taking Shakespeare, fractions, or frog dissection off the syllabus, but even as we talk about world history or algebra, as we help students make meaningful connections to their own lives we help them do something else. We help them learn.