The First Chapter - Lower School
Welcome to The First Chapter by Silvia Davis, Head of Lower School, a blog featuring wonderful stories about our youngest students.
Mrs. Davis will be posting here regularly. Please be sure to scroll down to read more and check back frequently for updates.
There are various quotes about the promise and hope which come with a new year. In education, we have the unique opportunity to have two New Years: one in January and another in September. The Responsive Classroom text, The First Six Weeks of School, guides teachers in creating the classroom community and culture most conducive to learning. In its first page, the authors write, “There’s something fresh and exciting about a new school year - a sense of boundless optimism and crisp new beginnings. And every year, the first six weeks present us with a wonderful opportunity to help students transition smoothly back into school routines and start to connect with each other.” Our teachers are the guides for children into these routines, and as guides, we are seen as the experts to help children along the way, creating the space for learning to flourish.
No matter our first-year teaching or our 40th, I’ll tell you a little teaching secret: no teacher sleeps more than an hour or two at a time in the first days of school. As we approach mid-August, or what a former colleague of mine used to call “The Sunday of the Summer,” our minds begin to race with all the things there are to get ready for the year. Teachers worry about getting their classrooms set up. Teachers worry about having all of the supplies labeled for every child. Teachers worry about having everything laminated to keep papers fresh throughout the year. Teachers worry about planning those first days and the activities in those first days so all students, new and returning, feel comfortable in the classroom.
I could go on and on about all the details they check off their lists to be prepared for that first minute when children come in on the treasured First Day of School. These details, to the outsider seem trivial or like minutia, but to the teacher, and more importantly, to the student, they are the difference between feeling welcome in your classroom due to the smooth transition back into a routine, and feeling like a stranger in your class. In these first weeks of school every detail the teachers attend to is carefully planned in order to do a few important things. Teachers care for the details of creating a climate of warmth, inclusion and safety. They care for the details of teaching the classroom routines and behavioral expectations. They care for the details of helping students get to know their home away from home by caring for their classroom and school. And, teachers care for the details of establishing expectations for academic work.
I have written quite a bit about the power of community. While many students have been with us in Lower School for several years, every year, we are essentially rebuilding the community. Given the few days we have in a school year and the amount of learning which takes place, there is not much time to waste in creating our classroom communities within the Lower School community. So, it seems with the promise of a new year comes the urgency of the fresh start as well. In this timeframe, we feel the pressures of getting “things done.” It is then that the new year becomes the double-edged sword: on one hand we have hope, promise and excitement, and on the other we have the pressure of a finite amount of time during which to accomplish much. It is in the latter that we forget the former...rather quickly.
Hope is a fascinating thing. We look to it rather quickly, and we seem to dismiss it rather quickly. When I think of the fragility of hope, I am reminded of the Greek myth about Pandora. According to the ancient Greeks, Pandora was the first human woman created by the gods as a gift and punishment for Prometheus’ stealing the element of fire from Zeus. Pandora was a beautiful woman, but was cursed with incessant curiosity. Zeus sent a jar along with her to Earth with explicit directions not to open it under any circumstances. After not long, Pandora opened it, and inadvertently released all the world’s evils of humanity such as pain and suffering. All that was left by the time Pandora and Prometheus closed it was hope. While the Greeks used this myth to explain why there are awful things which exist in the world, they also used it to explain the fact that we should always hold on to hope. I would also like to think that there is a metaphor for the fragility of hope as well due to its vulnerable vessel. In the frenzy of getting things done, we toss the jar aside.
The time that our teachers take to plan the first weeks of school and to create their classroom community saves hours later. And so, with all the sleepless nights, labeling, organizing, cleaning, planning and creating, comes a solid foundation for which each child enters feeling welcome and cared about. Perhaps, it is also creating a solid foundation on which we can sit the jar of hope so that it is cared for and thrives. As it is on this foundation, the learning environment is set as a safe, joyful space where all students thrive.
I began this school year in my welcome letter by sharing my love of a good story. What can I say, I am still a teacher at heart. Throughout the 2017-2018 school year, we as a community have shared hundreds of experiences, which contribute to our own individual story. At the Fifth Grade Moving Up Ceremony, I spoke to the students with many of the following words, as I continued the metaphor of the story, to liken this to our experience as a community.
“Fifth graders, each of you contribute to one another, you contribute to your class, you contribute to the Lower School, and most importantly, you contribute to The Wardlaw+Hartridge School. Yet, today, you turn the page to look to a new adventure: Middle School.” It is also true that every single student in the Lower School contributes to the story of The Wardlaw+Hartridge School.
While I’m confident no fifth grader knew much about Ferris Bueller or his famous day off, I quoted the movie at Moving Up regardless. “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” Life does move fast. And, though they do not believe it, every adult remembers some parts of their fifth grade year. It wasn’t really THAT long ago.
John Lennon and Paul McCartney began one of their more famous songs, “There are places I remember, all my life, though some have changed.” I asked each fifth grader, and I ask you now to stop and look around to let this place, and let this time be one you remember all your life.
I cannot promise our students that they will remember every moment of every day of their Lower School experience. I can promise that they will remember the important moments. They will remember their teachers. To paraphrase a well-known teacher quote, they may not remember what their teachers said, they may not remember what their teachers did, but I am quite confident they will remember the way their teachers made them feel. They have made an indelible mark on each of our students.
There are many incredible storytellers. And, the best storytellers tell their tales in such a way that cause audience members reflect and think about their own experiences. But, I want our students to know, that within their experiences are their own story.
In my first blog post, I said that the story of the Lower School is a compelling one. In the beginning, one gets to read about the characters. The Pre-Kindergartener who now learned how to do things for herself every day in this school year. The fifth grader who rose to the occasion by becoming one of the leaders of the Lower School through his daily interactions with the younger children. Each of these protagonists settled into the narrative of the 2017-2018 school year, and every student, parent, and teacher, contributed to the plot. While this chapter is complete, another one begins in just a few short months. I, for one, can’t wait to read more.
So, as I said to the fifth grade students, I say to each of our students. In the words of Dr. Seuss, “You have brains in your head, you have feet in your shoes, you can steer yourself in any direction you choose. You’re off to great places. Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting...so get on your way!”
It has been said that necessity is the mother of invention. Our fifth grade students recently explored the idea of inventions that greatly affect our world today, in their Capstone projects. Throughout the second half of the school year, the fifth grade students, with the guidance of their teachers, have researched different inventions and inventors. Topics varied from the contact lens, blood transfusions, paper currency, and the telescope.
I was surprised to know the idea of the contact lens predates our country’s birth by well over 150 years as Leonardo da Vinci is credited with the originated idea. The Capstone project is a key piece of our Lower School curriculum, and, as well, of the curriculum here at The Wardlaw+Hartridge School in each division. Students in grades 5, 8 and 12 research, write and present on a variety of topics from year-to-year.
This year, the fifth grade’s overarching topic was Inventions Prior to 1900. Initially, students were paired up based on their topic choices to complete elements of the project. As they begin their research together, the children are able to experience one of the most important pieces of a project-based learning education, which is the art of collaboration and communication.
Throughout the process, they continue on to complete other elements of their work: a three-dimensional representation of their invention, which is created with the consultation of teachers in the art department; a stop-motion video, which is made over weeks of classes with our STEM teacher; and their presentation, which is birthed from months of immersion in the topic. The children’s writing pieces were the only portion of the work that was completed on their own. When the teachers initially explained the project to the students, they cheered with excitement. Their teachers quipped, “You know this is actually a ton of work, right?” Rather than simply writing a long paper, and presenting it via PowerPoint, the children wrote their research paper, but also wrote a script for their movie, and prepared to speak about their topic off-the-cuff.
Recently, I kicked off the Experts in Education Speaker Series here at W+H on the topic of project-based learning. In project-based learning, commonly known as PBL, students spend time on an extended project that engages them in addressing a real-world problem or answering a complex question. Students demonstrate their skills and knowledge by developing a product of presentation, which they make public to people beyond the classroom. As a result, they develop deep content knowledge as well as 21st Century success skills. PBL has unleashed a contagious, creative energy among students, teachers and families. That, in truth, takes a good deal more confidence than reading your writing and reading from your PowerPoint. While those types of projects certainly have their purpose, it is the level of comfort in speaking from a place of knowledge about a topic, in and informal way, which is a true test of communicative ability. As I stood listening to our students present months worth of their hard work, I was amazed by their eloquence and ability to convey their ideas in such a comfortable manner. For it is one thing to know something, but quite another to be able to communicate it to another person.
Later in the week, I sat in on the third and fourth grade speeches, and again I was wholly impressed with the ability of children to demonstrate learning in such a confident way. In the third grade speeches, the children also prepared for months to demonstrate their understandings about famous Americans. In a February 2018 article on Edutopia, the author is quoted as saying, “It’s been a long time since schools focused solely on the three Rs—reading, writing, and arithmetic. Along the way, we realized that there’s so much more that defines a successful student and citizen, and that schools play a central role in training students to improve on a multitude of skills and abilities.
“The fear of public speaking, or glossophobia, strikes almost 80 percent of our general population. Throw in our country’s percentage of English-language learners (ELLs), which ranges from 10 to 25 percent of our K–12 population (depending on the state), and you have an issue that requires precise scaffolding to help prepare our students to hit grade-level speaking expectations. So how can we challenge students to improve their oral presentation skills?”
One way is to work within the PBL framework as defined by the Partnership for 21st Century Learning’s framework. One of the major elements which overarches the frame is that of what they call the 4Cs: Creativity and Innovation, Critical Thinking and Problem Solving, Communication and Collaboration. These learning and innovation skills are increasingly being recognized as the skills that separate students who are prepared for an increasingly complex life and work environment in the 21st Century, and those who are not. A focus on creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration is essential to prepare students for the future. In this space, students are able to create and innovate, or invent. So, it seems that in truth, communication, is in fact, the mother of invention.
Throughout the year, I have referenced the work we embark upon in the Responsive Classroom Approach. Every Lower School teacher attended a one-day workshop learning about the basics of the program. The goals of the Responsive Classroom Approach are twofold: ensure that children feel physically and emotionally safe in school so they can learn at their best, and to develop self-discipline and the skills for learning cooperatively with others.
My latest read is that of Todd Whitaker’s What Great Teachers Do Differently: 17 Things That Matter Most. In the beginning of the text, Whitaker says, “Any teacher can fill a bookshelf with books about education. Any teacher can study lists of guidelines, standards, principles, and theories. The best teachers and the worst teachers alike can ace exams in their undergraduate and graduate classes. The difference between more effective teacher and their less effective colleague is not what they know. It is what they do.” He continues on later in the introduction to say, “Education is extremely complex, and so is classroom teaching. But we can work toward understanding what the best teachers do.”
In my days in and out of our classrooms with our students and teachers, I have the privilege of living what great teachers do differently. Charles Kettering, an American inventor, founded the Delco Company and held the position of the Head of Research at General Motors from 1920 to 1947. Kettering held 140 patents, yet he is most known for the invention of the electronic self-starter for the automobile. He is quoted as saying, “High achievement always takes place in the framework of high expectation.”
At Wardlaw + Hartridge, we provide that framework of academic excellence, to allow our students the space for high achievement. Whitaker talks of traveling the country after the first publishing of his book and spending time in schools talking with principals and teachers. He continues that as he describes how great teachers establish high expectation, treat every person with respect, and make it cool to care, some teachers reflect discomfort with the statement. Yet, what he values most is when said great teacherssay, “I know that was right!” I knew that I was right!
These great teachers always focus on the students first. Everything they do is with the best interests of the students under their care. As he continues to describe his research, he outlines a theory I have felt throughout my career in education, and likely, subconsciously, I felt this in my own educational experience as a student: There are many teachers who are well-educated and many who do not have the same pedigree of post-secondary study. There are many teachers who are incredibly organized and many who are at sixes and sevens. There are many teachers who know their subject inside and out and many who need to study up beforehand. But, all of those things do not make the greatest teachers neither in isolation nor combination. So, what does? There are factors which one finds in the greatest teachers. All of the qualities of a truly great teacher are simple, but they are not always easy.
In my reading and research for our Responsive Classroom work, I came across an important excerpt, "...when school discipline is working. There is a living ethic of care. Children feel safe. They know what the expectations are and want to meet them because the adults at school have helped them understand the reasons for these expectations. They know how to meet the expectations because the adults have taught them the necessary skills and positive behaviors. Now these behaviors become what students expect from one another. " Again, we return to the idea that the community and its expectations are what provides the space for learning. The greatest teachers focus on expectations. They expect good behavior, therefore, it is generally what they get. Just recently in a conversation, one teacher said to me, “My students know what my expectations are for them. I always hold them accountable.” It is that when the expectations are high, the students’ achievement is high.
In my casual conversations, I mentioned that our fourth graders were constructing pinball machines in their STEM work. So many, outside of our community, stopped and said, “Constructing their own pinball machines? That’s too hard for fourth graders.” When I told people that the class went to a pinball machine museum on a class trip, so many said, “Why?” My response was always, “Why not?” Setting the expectation that it is already too hard for them, just keeps the bar low, so why would they try to strive any higher? Creating a pinball machine of their own is an incredibly complex endeavor. And, yes, they are only 9 and 10 years old. Yet, they can (and did) do it. That is true academic rigor. Programs are important. Make no mistake that we not only have a strong program, but we also continually look at how to make it stronger. Whitaker makes a very important statement in his work: “It is never about programs. It is always about people.” If it were always about programs, all schools would have the same program. The solution to great schools would be simple. When I hear our teachers say, “Everything I do is about our students. That’s it. Nothing else is more important. It’s not about me.” It shows, we have great teachers. When one is focused on the students, hold them at a high expectation, and make children feellike you believe in them to accomplish challenging tasks, they do. In the words of Maya Angelou, “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Our teachers make our students feellike they can achieve, and it is in the feeling that half the battle is already won.
We have all heard the figure of speech, “only the strongest survive.” Interestingly enough, Charles Darwin, arguably the father of evolutionary theory, is quoted as saying, “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” Adaptability would, in fact, be a more required skill rather than physical strength or intelligence for survival of the fittest.
In my last blog post, Is the Question Really the Answer?, I referenced the 2008 book, The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best Schools Don’t Teach the New Survival Skills Our Children Need - and What We Can Do About It by Tony Wagner, co-director of the Change Leadership Group at Harvard University, where Wagner discusses a set of Seven Survival Skills. In addition to critical thinking and problem solving, another so-called survival skill Wagner names is agility and adaptability. In his discussion of this skill Wagner points out that the “portrait of the New World of Work that is emerging is a complex one,” and there is a palpable shift from a “hierarchical authority that tells you what to do to a team-based environment.” I think we can all agree that, on the whole, we are there. The shift in the work environment has been made, and it does not seem to be swinging back any time soon. This New World of Work organizational structure compounded by the rate of change in technologies, the amount of data available due to the digital age (which to call overwhelming would be a gross understatement) and the complexity of the nature of said work presents daily unknown challenges. It is not possible to have “lived this experience” before in identicality, therefore it seems adaptability is key.
The Power of Our Words is the title of a book published by the Northeast Foundation for Children and the Center for Responsive Schools written by Paula Denton, Ed.D., which our Lower and Middle School faculty are reading. The foreword, written by Lora M. Hodges, Ed.D, outlines the role of a teacher in a way which one might find starkly different from that of which it was in the past. Hodges says, “Our job today is to help students not only learn the content of the curricula, but also, and more importantly, develop a range of cognitive and social competencies. Our job is to cultivate their higher order thinking skills to they can not only solve problems, but identify which problems need solving. Our job is to teach them to be creative, deep thinkers and bold innovators; collaborative team players and assertive leaders. It’s to teach them how to set goals and persist in working toward those goals when the going gets tough; to find their own, intrinsic motivation for learning; to discover the joy inherent in hard, worthy work.” This is no small task. As with anything, one needs the right tools for the job. Curricula, programming, facilities and materials are all important tools for the job, but I feel the most important tool, the metaphorical hammer, if you will, is our words.
In the opening pages of The Power of Our Words, Denton says language “permeates every aspect of teaching and learning. We cannot engage children in learning, welcome a child into the room, or handle a classroom conflict without using words. Children cannot do a science observation of reading assignment or learn a classroom routine without listening to and interpreting their teacher’s words. And what they hear and interpret – the message they get from their teacher – has a huge impact on how they think and act, and ultimately how they learn.” Denton outlines these general guidelines which underpin the strategies presented in the remainder of the text:
- Be direct and genuine.
- Convey faith in children’s abilities and intentions.
- Focus on action.
- Keep it brief.
- Know when to be silent.
Now, one might wonder how these simple, clear guidelines in any way teach children adaptability. How can a basic structure teach children to be flexible? We’ll get there shortly.
Another principle of the Responsive Classroom framework is discussed in another published text, Teaching Children to Care by Ruth Sidney Charney, and this is the principle of choice. In fact, choices define boundaries. Boundaries often have a negative connotation, yet they are not all negative. Often, limitless possibility provides the space for ambiguity. How often have you asked your child, or even another adult, the question, “What would you like to do for dinner?” and the answer is, “I don’t know.” Or, a more popular one amongst the parent community, “How was school today?” “Fine.” “What did you do?” “Nothing.” The myriad of things one could eat for dinner, or the number of things which might have occurred in the 420 minutes in an average school day is too much for the mind to choose from, and so, it chooses nothing. Again, choices set boundaries, as the sky is not the limit, and so it defines what is possible to allow children to make a choice. Choices are presented in the same framework named above: direct and genuine, conveying faith in their ability to make an appropriate choice, focused on action, and brief.
In the 2010 book, Switch: How to Change When Change Is Hard, by Chip and Dan Heath, the Heath Brothers tell anecdotal stories to ground their premise of how to make lasting changes in personal and professional settings. They use the metaphor of an elephant and a ride throughout the book to anchor our understanding, which is borrowed from Jonathan Haidt’s book The Happiness Hypothesis. The Elephant is our emotional side and the Rider is our rational side. When the Rider sits on the Elephant, it seems the Rider is in control of our actions, but when you consider the relative size of the Rider to the Elephant, it would take very little to shift the power of who is really in control. The Elephant, or emotional side, can easily take over and this side almost always reverts to automaticity, as that is directly connected to comfort and predictability. Whenever the Rider and Elephant disagree about the direction (think getting up early to go to the gym) the Rider almost always will lose. Yet, we know so many who get up three or more times a week to go to the gym; it cannot be that they all love the gym that much. More so, it is that their routine is established or as outlined in Switch the Path. The Heath Brothers’ surmise that the way to make change is three-fold:
Direct the Rider - often the Rider is not clear on why the change is needed
Motivate the Elephant - emotionally we exhaust easily, so engaging the emotions so they don’t have to battle logic makes the process more simple
Shape the Path - create an environment in which change can more easily be navigated
It is by creating structured circumstances for children to make choices and learn adaptability, shaping the Path, they will be able to apply it to their lives. Asking your child, “What do you want to have for dinner? Chicken or Pasta?” allows their minds to have a simple Path to navigate. “What do you want to do for dinner?” solely provides children with a jungle of a path to traverse with much too many options, therefore they say, “I don’t know.” Or, “ice cream” something you would not let them have in the first place.
One might also consider the clear, direct language which focuses on action of: “You can pick your new homework routine: doing it as soon as you get home from school and play until dinner is ready, or you can do your homework after a 30-minute, timed, play break. Those are the options.” Sticking to the time constraints provides the motivation in both spaces. The choices are clear, direct and focused on action, and the Elephant sees the emotional motivation in both.
John Maxwell, motivational speaker on the topic of leadership, and William Arthur Ward, inspirational writer, are both quoted as saying, “The pessimist complains about the wind. The optimist expects it to change. The leader adjusts the sails.” As the faculty studies the power of our words, we intentionally create the space for children to learn adaptability, or teaching our students how to metaphorically adjust the sails. We use the power of our words with direct, genuine language one teaches sailing - anyone who has ever sailed knows that ambiguity is not your friend on the water. We use the power of our words with faith in their abilities and intentions – not ever letting a person hoist a sail when learning how does not tell them you think they can do it.
We use the power of our words to focus on action. It goes without saying if you are learning how to sail, you should probably sail. We use the power of our words to keep it brief. You will lose your window of time if you just merely talk about sailing. And finally, we use the power of our words by knowing when it’s time to be silent...and sail. We use the power of our words to teach them how to adjust the sails, rather than sending them off for the first time in a sailboat, and saying, “Ok. Good luck!”
In the New Year, it is commonplace for us all to make a resolution - to try to do something better, or just something new which would in turn, make our lives better. Yet, statistically, many let their resolutions fall by the wayside before January is even over. It seems that something is missing when we intend to improve, but never really follow through to do so.
In the 2008 book, The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best Schools Don’t Teach the New Survival Skills Our Children Need - and What We Can Do About It by Tony Wagner, co-director of the Change Leadership Group at Harvard University, Wagner discusses a set of Seven Survival Skills. He deduces one needs said skills to excel in the 21st Century workplace. He considers the questions: What will students need to know in order to compete successfully for jobs? and What will it take for young graduates to get and keep a “good” job in the coming decades? He asserts that a true education needs to be more than the traditional canon of coursework. The introduction of the book begins not by delving into how Wagner answers the questions, but with a quote from Einstein: “The formulation of the problem is often more important than the solution.” So, the question then becomes: Why do we have such difficulty with the formation of the problem, as in the example of the New Year’s Resolutions? We know how to fix it. We know how to make it better. But, is it in fact, the lack of acknowledgement and formulation of the problem, which prevents us from truly sticking with those resolutions through to newly developed habits?
Another book I read and refer to often is Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8: Teaching Kids to Succeed by Debbie Silver. The Japanese proverb from which the title was derived, appears to hold the key to the resolution problem, perhaps. It seems that with New Year’s Resolutions we tend to fall down seven times, get up six. I do not think it is a stretch to say that resolutions are not the only places we do this. Silver begins the text by discussing the differences between self-esteem and self-efficacy. While important for sure, self-esteem appears to have superficial, temporary effects, and Silver says our children would be better served with self-efficacy. Self-efficacy affects the choices we make, the effort we put forth, and of considerable importance, our perseverance and our resilience. The author does not believe the goal of most adults is to act as police to our children, micromanaging their every move, and forcing children to do things against their wills, but yet, we do - perhaps by accident. Through this, we are preventing the building blocks of many future pursuits. We do not even let them fall down once. And, now, we are presented with another question to add: How do we capitalize on the instinct of independence and learning, and build self-efficacy and determination? This question stems from the previous in the sense that it also seems instinctual to not persevere, given how frequently we let those resolutions fade away.
With our focus on pioneering thinking, we want to be sure that we are empowering our students with the tools to be pioneering thinkers. Thomas Edison has so many memorable quotes regarding invention, but a few of them speak so clearly to sticking with things and perseverance. “When you have exhausted all of the possibilities, remember this: you haven’t.” It is this mentality which we must instill in our children to bridge the global achievement gap.
In the opening chapter of Wagner’s book, he describes a conversation he had on a plane with Clay Parker, the president of a division of BOC Edwards. In this time, they began talking about what Parker looks for when hiring new employees. “First and foremost, I look for someone who asks good questions. Our business is changing, and so the skills our engineers need change rapidly, as well. We can teach them the technical stuff. But for employees to solve problems of to learn new things, they have to know what questions to ask.”
This reminds me of a fantastic animation series by WonderGrove Media. I learned of this a few years ago after attending a three-hour workshop with Arthur Costa and Bana Kallick, two accomplished, published educators at a conference held by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Costa and Kallick have done extensive research on Habits of Mind. They define these as essential life-skills, which can and should be explicitly taught. The two groups partnered on animations to present relatable situations in which children could unpack ideas like perseverance, listening and understanding with empathy, metacognition, and several others.
In the story focused on questioning and posing problems, the main character is solving a mystery of a missing globe in his classroom. After straight asking a few classmates if they took it, he goes to his teacher a bit frustrated by the dead end. She thanks him for taking on the project, then suggests his questioning might be the problem. Ms. Flowers says, “Think of the questions that will get thoughtful answers. Maybe, instead of asking people if they took the globe, ask why someone might want to take the globe.” Here, another question presents itself, in how to raise our children to be analytical thinkers. Or rather, how do we teach them to ask the right questions?
In many of our classes in the Lower School, we want children to figure things out. We want them to try, try again. We want children to live lives like Thomas Edison saying, “I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that do not work.” Author Jessica Lahey, who most recently spoke in our area, published the book, The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Can Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed. What I feel speaks more to the essence of Lahey’s words is not even so much her own, but rather the critical acclaim:
“This fascinating, thought-provoking book shows that to help children succeed, we must allow them to fail. Essential reading for parents, teachers, coaches, psychologists, and anyone else who wants to guide children towards lives of independence, creativity, and courage.”
- Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project
Is it perhaps, not the answers we seek, or rather not the resolutions, but is it the questions? Might Charles Levi-Strauss have had the key to keeping those New Year’s Resolutions when he said, “A wise man does not give the right answers, he poses the right questions.” When I see and learn of the work of the Lower School children, I do not just look at the answers they give and are given. I also look at the questions being asked to and by them. When I look at our students, I see children learning to try, learning to question, learning to persevere, and resolving to be analytical, pioneering thinkers.
“When you have the choice to be right, or to be kind, choose to be kind.” You may be more familiar with this quote by Dr. David W. Dyer, renowned self-help author, in its newly adapted form of merely #choosekind. Dr. Dyer’s words have found a resurgence from their original publishing in his 1995 self-help book entitled, Staying on the Path. Author, R.J. Palacio’s debut novel has swept the nation since its publication in 2012, but just recently the book has found its way to the silver screen. All over television, I see commercials telling viewers to “choose kind.” A few years ago, a student of mine purchased Wonder for me as a gift to my classroom library. I never had the opportunity to read the book, or rather, I should restate that as: I never made the time to read the book. However, as is often the case, with #choosekind all over the place, I decided to pull out the text again.
It is in the first 50 or so pages of the book, we find the choose kind mantra. August “Auggie” Pullman, the main character, is a 10-year-old boy who has striking facial irregularities and, while Palacio never truly names Auggie’s condition, it seems that his symptoms most closely align with Treacher Collins Syndrome. This story is written fully in the first person with Auggie as the narrator addressing us as the reader. The first page ends with Auggie saying to his readers, “My name is August, by the way. I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you are thinking, it’s probably worse.”
This is quite the catalyst for turning not only the following page, but as well the subsequent 315 pages. Yet, it is in that impactful first 50 pages, Auggie begins attending “regular” school, and meets his English teacher, Mr. Browne. Mr. Browne reminded me of a Lily Tomlin quote, “I like a teacher who gives you something else to think about besides homework.” In Auggie’s very first day, Mr. Browne introduces the books they will read and what they will do that semester, but, what he spends the first part of the class period on is his precepts or his rules about “really important things.” The class has a discussion about mottos, famous quotes, and ground rules not for English, per se, but for life. His September precept is, “When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.” They talk about how these ideas will be incorporated into their curriculum, for sure, but really, how they should be incorporated into their lives. As Auggie writes the September precept into his English notebook, it suddenly occurs to him, “I realized that I was going to like school. No matter what.” I don’t want to spoil the remainder of the book, but as I read that line in the book, I had a realization myself: I was going to love this book.
Kindness is incredibly important. Yet often, I think children and adults alike, feel that kindness is just a one and done thing and is merely holding the door for someone, or saying that you like their shoes. In truth, it is so much more than that. In the last few years in the classroom, I came across the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation, a non-profit, which does focused work spreading kindness throughout schools, communities and homes. Often I would head to that website as a resource for activities, books, suggestions and more as to intentionally incorporating kindness in the classroom. They speak of an important point. Don’t just assume children know how to be kind; teach them. Sometimes it is the large lessons where we focus our students in ways to be kind to others. We might ask them to write letters of thanks to others, unprompted, showing another person in your life that you are grateful for them. Our fifth graders recently took on this challenge by taking the time to write letters to adults in their lives. I, myself, experienced that feeling, similar to that of the Grinch in Dr. Seuss’ tale when his heart grows three sizes, when I opened two letters from fifth grade students just leaving a note of kindness. Our cleaning staff cried when they read notes from children thanking them for the work they do for our school. These small things have a great impact on others.
Hung throughout the Lower School, we now have framed posters from the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation, which point to specific ways to conduct oneself ethically. While we are of course teaching academics, the social and emotional work is incredibly important. This is the value added by being a part of a community like The Wardlaw+Hartridge School. Our teachers spend the time on intentionally educating children on how to conduct themselves.
We use the posters not just as a way to decorate, but also as talking points for our students. “Compassion,” one reads, “being aware when others are sick, sad or hurt, and wanting to help.” It is not just about reading a poster. It is not just about reading stories. It is not just about giving examples. It is about all of the adults in the lives of children modeling this same ethical conduct of kindness each and every day.
It does not take much more than a few kind words to change a person’s entire life. Intentionally taking the time to write kind words about someone else means a great deal. And, for the March precept from Mr. Browne, as stated by 17th century French mathematician Blaise Pascal, “Kind words do not cost much. Yet they accomplish much.”
World Peace and Other 4th-Grade Achievements is the title of a fascinating book by educator John Hunter. Hunter began his teaching career in the mid-1970s, during a time of his own quest for enlightenment. He traveled to India in such pursuits, and he returned to his home state of Virginia to tell his parents he thought he was about to find himself. His parents, quite supportive of his (adventure) told him they were happy, and he could find a job. Thus, he began a globally impactful career educating gifted children.
Hunter was fueled by what is in truth the guiding principles of constructivist education, the idea of experience going further than any other tool in learning. He says in his 2011 TED talk that his first principal opened this space for him to do what he wanted with this new gifted education program, and from this place on he vowed to “clear a space for (his) students, an empty space, whereby they could create and make meaning out of their own understanding.” Here was born his passion project of The World Peace Game. In his book, Hunter describes the game as one that “plunges (his) students into complexity – and then gives them the chance to find their own way back to the surface.”
However, it is important to not misinterpret this work as free and haphazard. He continues to describe the work, “I support them, of course, with rules and structure and instruction. But I’m also giving them the chance to master this alternate reality on their own.” As the text continues, Hunter outlines three components of the mastering of The World Peace Game: knowledge, creativity and wisdom. Several hundred pages later, as the book concludes, Hunter provides the reader with a large thought to let in to their own schema:
Each time I play the Game, I have a moment -- perhaps several moments -- of fearing that victory will not appear; that this will be the first session of the Game (perhaps the first of many?) in which my students don’t solve the crises, don’t improve the material of assets of each country, and don’t, finally, achieve world peace. And then the class somehow pulls it together, somehow comes up with a new creative solution or a new mode of cooperation or simply a better way to communicate among themselves. Somehow, they always come through. And so, what I want to share with you is this: There is never nothing you can do. There is always something.
As I completed this book, after having the privilege of hearing John Hunter speak in person, and previewing the (then) upcoming documentary about the Game, I think often of how I, and we as a Lower School, provide the space to create and make meaning of children’s own understanding. How do I, and we, teach students the three components of knowledge, creativity and wisdom, with the full knowledge that the latter is the hardest to teach and the most challenging of which to prove mastery?
A few (well, hundreds really…) pieces of applicable thoughts I pull from this reading, and I consider it while I am currently completing my latest read of the book Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us by business blogger and author, Seth Godin. In the pursuit of educating the pioneering thinkers under our charge, I ask myself: Are we providing the space? Are we teaching the components? Then, on my own singular shoulders, Am I providing the space for teachers? Am I emulating the components myself? That, in my view, is my role as the Head of Lower School, to lead rather than to manage. Leaders provide the space. Leaders emulate the components. Leaders begin movements.
Godin paraphrases Senator Bill Bradley’s definition of a movement:
1.) A narrative that tells a story about who we are and the future we are trying to build.
2.) A connection between and among the leader and the tribe.
3.) Something to do - the fewer limits the better.
On reflection, Godin asserts that too often, organizations fail to do anything but the third.
Our narrative of who we are and the future we are trying to build is that of our mission statement and our core values. Preparing students to lead and succeed in a world of global interconnection is a strong statement, as it should be. As large a task as it is, we need to start somewhere in the vein of one small drop in the water creates ripples in the entire pond. And, additionally, as Godin notes, “The one path that never works is the most common one: doing nothing at all.”
Our teachers in Lower School spend time creating the space for children to make the small drop. As I consider the current place in the story of the Lower School, I see third graders who have started a Pajama Drive based on a Scholastic and the Pajama Program co-benefit whereas for every pair of donated pajamas, Scholastic will also donate books to children in need. The small drop the third graders make will reach far beyond Edison, New Jersey to children and adults alike around the world who need clothing and books.
The fourth graders Trick-or-Treated for UNICEF, and through this they raised over $600 to benefit children in underdeveloped countries fulfill basic needs. In these examples, which are only two of many, these young children are leaders. They started something because it mattered to them. Yes, they received attention for doing so, and we often shy away from attention seeing it as a vain, negative thing.
Godin suggests differently saying, “In today’s supercharged political (and TV) environment, it’s easy to believe that in order to lead, you need to be an egomaniac, a driven superstar intent on self-glorification and aggrandizement. In fact, the opposite is nearly always the case. Leaders who set out to give are more productive than leaders who seek to get. Even more surprising is the fact that the intent of the leader matters.” He also remarks that, “Great leaders are able to reflect the light onto their teams, their tribes. Great leaders don’t want the attention, but they use it. They use it to unite the tribe and to reinforce its sense of purpose.”
So, when we prepare students to lead and succeed in a world of global interconnection, I think for this moment, the key word is lead. The children’s book What Do You Do with an Idea? by Kobi Yamada begins in this way, “One day, I had an idea. ‘Where did it come from? Why is it here?’ I wondered, ‘What do you do with an idea?’ We clear the space for our students to consider what to do with their ideas. As a pioneering thinker, our students grow to be leaders of tribes. And, with our mission’s focus of global responsibility, we create the space for their ideas to spread far beyond their immediate reaches. What Do You Do with an Idea? concludes with, “And then, I realized what you do with an idea… You change the world.”
Our students change the world.
In spending my days with the youngest pioneering thinkers, I observe these simple truths as written in the well-known book by Robert Fulghum, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten: Uncommon Thoughts On Common Things: “Imagination is stronger than knowledge. That myth is more potent than history. That dreams are more powerful than facts. That hope always triumphs over experience… Live a balanced life - learn some and draw some and paint some and sing and dance and play and work every day some.”
This summer I read a fascinating, yet brief read, Who Are You, Really?: The Surprising Puzzle of Personality by Dr. Brian R. Little. Dr. Little is a professor at Cambridge University whose landmark work and book studies the human condition. Dr. Little’s research finds that both nature and nurture affect who we are, truly. He asserts that what you do affects who you are, and who you are affects what you do. He marks the idea that personal projects help define us - shaping our capacity for a flourishing life. Dr. Little opines, “Generally speaking, to the extent that a person is in engaged in projects that are meaningful, manageable, and connected with others, and that generate more positive than negative feelings, their well-being will be enhanced.” Continuing on, his claims are that what makes a person who they are, really, is not solely nature or nurture. It is in fact, the projects that one pursues, and this is the true driver of one’s personality.
The littlest people often hold the keys to unlocking life’s secrets, yet they do not know it until they are old enough to forget it. As children begin the lifelong pursuit of learning, almost always does a child read about an interesting dinosaur fact, pick up a cool book about the herbivore stegosaurus, rattle off a few tidbits about the Jurassic period, and then before you know it there is a replica of the Mesozoic Era in the family room or some other deep dive into whatever their newest fascination may be. In this way, children automatically dive into passion projects, essentially without instruction or permission. Eventually, for most, this natural inclination ceases. As one ages, it becomes less instinctual to just dig in, and lean into the lure of curiosity.
The saying “necessity is the mother of invention” has a common place in our vernacular, yet, I think, in fact, it should be phrased, “ingenuity and intrigue is the mother of invention.” As one studies the paths of our society’s pioneers, the Katherine Johnsons, the Diego Riveras, and dear to our Wardlaw + Hartridge history, the Grace Murray Hoppers, one finds that to be a pioneer, to really be a thinker who paves the way for others, it is important to try things and to invest in work. It is important to get involved in a project and to dedicate time to studying something. It is important one’s work is connected with other people. Grace Murray Hopper devoted her time to projects within the field of computing science while in the Navy. Katherine Johnson was known as a “human calculator” to those she worked with at NASA. Diego Rivera spent every free moment drawing and painting about his beloved Mexico in an indigenous style even as he studied in Paris. In truth, it does not matter specifically “the what,” but more that the project is meaningful, manageable, and connected with others.
This is the challenge we have as educators to provide the example and space for children to continue the pursuit of these passions, or rather Pioneer Projects. As the school year began, the challenge began as well. This is a case where to truly teach children the value of committing to those meaningful, manageable, connected projects, our Lower School teachers are simply modeling the “do as I say, and do as I do” mentality. Teachers have been working on engaging children in what we are naming Pioneer Projects: the Kindness Rocks Project, a year-long curriculum dedicated to intentionally living positive character traits, starting an afterschool class making podcasts, engaging in a Global Oneness program. All of these Pioneer Projects, initiated by teachers, yet engaged with and modeled for students, will soon result in children’s confidence to pursue more projects of their own choosing, not only at home, but also in school. And this, as Dr. Little states, will most certainly lead to an enhanced well-being, long-term success, and a flourishing life.
It is no secret to anyone that our lives are rather busy. As I mentioned in my opening letter, I greatly value the practices of mindfulness, taking time to rest, and sharing stories. In the words of Ferris Bueller, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” While its source may not be for us all, the sentiment of the quote is incredibly important. We must take the time to look around: to be mindful, to rest, and to share stories with one another.
The focus of my blog this year will be to continue the practice of sharing stories in the hopes that taking the time to value the moments in Lower School will remind us all to stop and look around a bit more as our youngest children so naturally do. I’ll be sharing some of my own stories, some of our teachers’ stories, and most often, our students’ stories, all in the spirit of more closely knitting together our community.
In these first weeks of the school year, I have to say my favorite part of each day has been taking the intentional time to go into classrooms, to sit in lunch and recesses, to greet in the morning and say goodbye in the afternoons, with your children. As I do this, I’m beginning to crack the spine, so to speak, in our story.
So much has happened in the first weeks of school, it is hard to believe that it is only the end of September! Beginning with the Welcome Back BBQ and our First Day of School, the Lower School has been a flutter with life that only children can bring to our rooms and halls. We have done so much together already! From the Kindness Rocks project, to sharing some of my favorite stories with the students and teachers, to learning more about Rosh Hashanah, each of these times spent together could already fill a library.
A closer look into the Lower School life this month came from the Fourth Grade Art Classes in which I spent some dedicated time. Last week, I happened to pop in to their class, when asking Mrs. Howard’s help for a little project of my own. Mrs. Howard later invited me to join their next class where the students received their Painting Demo. It was here, in the following class, the children and I learned about the steps to take once we get started, and how to mix and blend to create all of the colors one might want to use from the color wheel. I, for one, am looking forward to the next class, and now I am hooked, and have to follow this unit of study through to its completion.
The story of the Lower School is a compelling one. In the beginning, one gets to read about the characters. The Pre-Kindergartener who is learning how to do things for herself every day in the first weeks of school. The Fifth Grader who is rising to the occasion by becoming one of the Leaders of the Lower School through serving dessert at lunch and greeting the younger ones at Morning Drop Off. Each of these protagonists are starting to settle into the narrative of the 2017-2018 school year. I, for one, can’t wait to read more. Please continue to read my blog and follow me on Twitter (@SilviaDavisWH) for more insight into the Lower School story.
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