Balance, not Terror

photoWe’ve been, unapologetically, watching a lot of Star Trek lately.

This morning it was Balance of Terror, my seven year old son’s first introduction to the Romulans. He dug the explosions and his eyes widened (as every 1966 television audience member’s did) when it turned out that the evil Romulans looked like Spock.

A second grader, he’s enamored by flying through space and watching Kirk’s penchant for fisticuffs. The aliens intrigue him and the moral conflicts, more complicated than those he saw in Scooby Doo, give him something to think about.

Watching him experience Star Trek for the first time reminds me greatly of teaching high school English. I relished the fact that I got to introduce my students to Oedipus, Kurtz, and the marvelously mad Ophelia. Journeying with them from a time before they’d read Hamlet to a lifetime of having experienced the play felt magical.

As a high school principal, I get a catbird seat for those many milestones of growing up: the first day of high school, breaking up at the prom, the palpable anxiety and expectation that fills a stadium during graduation rehearsal. I also see, up close, those first experiences that help define character: bombing a test, a really important one; not making a team, or not playing much if you do make it; being faced with a decision between two terrible options, or even harder, between two great ones.

Any single experience does not define us. Parents and students who have found themselves in my office over the years have often heard me describe the stress of the moment (a suspension, a dust up with another student, an academic catastrophe) as “a speed bump, not a brick wall.” My twenty plus years as an educator have taught me the truth of choosing to see current stresses through that lens.

When we don’t, and it’s extraordinarily easy not to, we raise our own anxiety and do nothing to help ourselves or our kids.

More than once I’ve seen parents intervene, sometimes with a dramatic show of force, in situations that seem to mean more to them than to their kids. Almost always in these cases the parents’ passion comes from a place of love; as moms and dads we naturally want to protect our kids, but the results can sometimes produce a long term effect that is the opposite of what we hoped.

An example comes to mind of a person who coached for me a number of years ago. Fresh out of college, he was excited to have an opportunity to work with high schoolers, coaching a sport he loved. There was no question about the coach’s passion, but when obscenities began peppering his talks with the team, and when yelling became his standard tone at practices, something had to be done.

Working with our athletic director, we did our best to communicate school expectations and school appropriate behavior to our passionate (albeit a little immature) coach. We wanted to help him understand how he could keep his passion, but approach this job differently. It didn’t work.

At the end of the season, when the final review came due and we sat down for a difficult discussion, the coach chose not to met with us alone; he brought his dad.

As this caring, angry, protective father talked about “fairness” and our “obligation” to give his son another chance, I saw a parent/child dynamic that had been honed over years. How sad, I thought, even as it was happening, that this father was denying his son the status of adult.

There is a time to intervene, and a level of intrusion appropriate for each age. There is also a time when our kids begin to move past the love of phaser guns and space battles and are ready to engage in the more morally complex world.

Balance, not terror, should guide our actions as parents. We are, after all, the adults our children will learn to become.

“Wonder Junkie or Answer Seeker?”

spockThere are days when the business of teaching and learning feels like heading out on the Starship Enterprise for a mission to discover new life and new civilizations. Other days we do reading quizzes. With absolute truth in advertising, sometimes these happen on the same day. Education is a spicy, salty, and sweet salmagundi of flavors, where the wild abandon of an egg drop in physics can be accompanied by students engaging in serious mathematical computations and logical explanations about what happened that would make Spock proud.

So this week, when the #YourEdustory prompt asked “Are you a Wonder Junkie or Answer Seeker?” my first thought was: Yes.

Cultivating a sense of wonder is, or should be, a cornerstone of education. Schools at their best are workshops of creativity and curiosity. Harnessing the innate exuberance of students is what good teachers do best. Kids want to know, want to believe, and want not only to find relevance to their lives, but also want to expand the idea of what their lives can become.

Students also want, unapologetically, to know answers.

When we provide them with both information and inspiration, students’ learning soars.

The #YourEdustory prompt had a second part: “How can we embrace being lost?”

Great teachers, I thought, do this all the time.

A philosophy major, I think of Plato’s dialogues. His character Socrates makes a method out of asking questions in pursuit of answers. No, not answers, knowledge. Donning the appearance of someone lost, Socrates leads his students through questions that help them wander in, around, and through the topic at hand, finally reaching some sort of greater understanding of the big idea they were talking about.

I see amazing teachers do this in their classrooms every week. One of my favorite examples comes from a wildly engaging Integrated Math teacher who often asks her students two questions that would make Socrates smile: “What do you notice?” and “What do you wonder?”

What beautiful questions, answerable for all students, even those lost at the time, and helpful for all to consider as they wander through the material together.

And yet, I believe that Tolkien was right when he coined that bumper sticker worthy phrase: “Not all those who wander are lost.”

enterpriseEngaging in productive struggle around an idea or concept doesn’t have to mean feeling adrift. Embracing the disequilibrium of not knowing …yet, but believing that an answer is there to find is the perfect combination of a sense of wonder and commitment to answers. A little something like Star Trek.

Wonder junkie of answer seeker?


Choosing Captain Kirk

kirk appleWe were watching Star Trek. Bored with the cooking show his mom had going in the other room, my seven year old son, Henry, padded up to me where I was reading with hopes of watching something that didn’t involve garnishes or plating. We clicked through Netflix and settled, sensibly, on some time with William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy.

The first thing I did was start scrolling through episodes. I’ve been a Trek fan for a long time and knew the episodes I’d steer him toward (Devil in the Dark, maybe Mirror, Mirror) and away from (please, not Spock’s Brain). As a second grader, he hasn’t seen enough Star Trek (yet) to be a connoisseur. Truth be told, in this age of Jurassic World and The Force Awakens, I figured that the pacing and special effects of the 1960s show ran the risk of falling a bit short in the eyes of “kids today.”

So as I clicked past Amok Time and The Tholian Web, thinking I might capture his attention with Captain Pike and The Menagerie, he stopped me at The Apple.

When I say he stopped me, I mean that from his nest beneath a blanket he’d wrapped up in, he kept saying:

“The Apple!

                    “The Apple!

                                         “The Apple!

                                                               “The Apple!

                                                                                     “The Apple!”

Fighting it would have been like trying to stop Tribbles from multiplying.

alien appleSo I pushed PLAY and we watched as poisonous plants, exploding rocks, and a wondrously 1960s lightning bolt killed off redshirts. We saw Captain Kirk punch a garish alien with a white shock wig, Chekov woo a yeoman, and Bones pronounce someone dead. As our heroes approached the snake-headed rock that the aliens called Vaal, I thought: Henry is really digging this. Why?

I mean no offense to any Trekkers out there, but The Apple isn’t on many top ten lists. Sure it raises some philosophical issues, as the best episodes do, and Chekov wooing …well. With a pinch of moral dilemma and an idea rich point of view, The Apple isn’t bad, but my son’s interest in the episode outweighed the red painted aliens and fake jungle we were looking at.

And then it hit me why. He’d chosen it.

This investment in The Apple made it more meaningful to my seven year old than any episode I might have selected. We were watching it together because he’d picked it.

It was a good reminder for me as a principal of the importance of giving students choice and a measure of control over their own education.

One of the biggest changes in education as we leave the twentieth century farther and farther behind is the amount of choice afforded students both in classes and beyond. Students, so comfortable with the huge variety of options in their lives outside the schoolhouse, are more inclined than ever to embrace the increased level of choice at school too.

Terms like “personalized learning” and “student centered learning” have emerged to capture some of this independence, and I’d argue that we’ll continue to see even more choice and freedom in education in the years ahead.

That’s a good thing.

It doesn’t, however, mean that the kids are totally on their own.

Just as I sat with Henry and watched The Apple, enjoying his interest and occasionally joining him in discussion of Spock’s ears or Kirk’s angst, teachers work magic when they engage with students, guide them, and show them they really care.

The students I’ve met in my twenty plus years in education are overwhelmingly curious and come to school with hopes of learning something that will matter in their own lives. As a teacher it took me a while to recognize that not every student in the English classes I taught wanted, or even needed, to read Mary Wollstonecraft or know who Leibniz was; if I was clever, I could introduce them to both, but alongside other material that was more easily recognized as relevant to them.

Giving students more choice, often within some parameters that I explained in a way that “made sense” or seemed fair, helped too. By the end of my teaching career I allowed more choice to students both in what they read and in how they demonstrated what they knew. I don’t know that I would have ever been accused of providing “personalized learning,” but I do know that students felt that they had some say in what they were learning and how they learned it.

Not long ago a few teachers and I got into an extended conversation about the evolving role of the teacher. I had one take on it, another person I respect offered a different point of view. These healthy debates, even as we continue to rebuild our ship at sea (as Neurath would say), are important to helping support students as education continues to change.

photo (3)I relish my role as a principal in facilitating this discussion. The work we do with students matters greatly, and developing what that work will look like can be energizing for both teachers and their students.

One thing I do feel sure about is that great teachers will promote meaning by engaging students in their learning, and that choice is an increasing part of that.

Where will the kids go with this?

I’m guessing they’ll go boldly where no one has gone before.