So my last post, The Gritty Jester, was borne out of an idea I had during a morning run. The idea was in its infancy when I “scribbled” it down quickly without a good proofreading. I was disappointed to find so many errors upon review later that day. In my excitement to share this idea, I skipped an important step as a writer. My apologies. I will alway try to do better….
Anyone who has ever been in my office knows that I sport a typical English teacher’s bookshelf cluttered with tattered copies of classics, anthologies, and professional texts. But only one book is set face out and standing on the top shelf in full regalia- The Jester Has Lost His Jingle, by David Saltzman. While A Separate Peace (Knowles) was my first favorite book, and Song of Solomon (Morrison) my favorite book as a young adult, this seemingly children’s book represents the most transcendent of stories that I have read- and I continue to share it periodically not only as a guest reader in a Pre-K class, but also during my weekly conversations with the 6th, 7th,and 8th grade classes. It is certainly an important book for all ages.
In recent weeks, I have been exploring Angela Lee Duckworth, which has led me on a cookie crumb trail through Debbie Silver’s Fall Down Seven Times, Get Up Eight, through Ericcson’s 10, 000 hours and other nuggets that discuss grit and resilience as integral human traits for success.
On my morning run today, Duckworth met the Jester, and I realized just how much they have in common.
If you have not seen Duckworth’s TedTalk, here is the link:
Satlzman’s book follows the adventure of a court jester who one morning is suddenly faced with a kingdom of rulers and disciples that just no longer find him funny, nor do they find anything funny, hence the Jester “loses” his jingle and is banished.
At this point, the Jester, who has undoubtedly put in the Ericcsonian requisite 10,000 hours to become expert in his field, likewise shows tremendous grit in not giving up, but rather going on a journey to “find laughter”. Accompanied by his best friend, Pharley (a talking stick- a nice commentary on inclusivity and embracing differences in others), he travels the world seeking “laughter”. Ultimately, he arrives at a bridge that crosses to a huge city (undoubtedly Saltzman’s hometown of New York City of the 80′s).
Resolving through the first the banishment, then the inability to find his grail all over the world, he is then rejected rather harshly by multiple stereotypes: the smoking, ornery businessman, the homeless man on the street, and ultimately, he ends up at a hospital trying to cheer up a little girl with a tumor.
Showing grit, resilience, and a commitment to helping others through laughter, he starts small with the little girl, which ultimately leads the whole city into laughter and happiness.
The story ends with the Jester racing back to the king and reporting his experience, and sharing the laughter he “found” with the kingdom.
The story reflects so many ideas that educators and researchers in recent years have proposed as integral. A growth-mindset, resilience, embracing differences in others, a global community and cultural literacy (he goes between a medieval kingdom and contemporary New York city), collaboration (with Pharley- who at one point encourages the Jester to keep moving in his pursuit), and grit.
It is always refreshing to make such connections as these and to once again realize that my children are getting through their experiences the opportunity to develop these important traits, while also knowing that we are never too old to learn from a children’s book.
Side Note: I always feel compelled to share the story of David Saltzman- one of true grit, resilience, courage, and positive thinking. I encourage anyone interested in the powerful addition to the reading experience to read about David.
… because not on a schedule does inspiration come…
It always pleasantly surprises me what inspires me, and when that inspiration hits. Typically, I am flooded with thoughts in the morning, and with my recent foray into taking a morning run (even in the 30 degree rain as in this morning), these runs are both reflective and projective.
One of the great features on my smartphone is that I can voice dictate into a note; this function allows me to record ideas if they strike while I am driving.
So with these two foundational pieces of information, I wanted to share a brief anecdote of something that happened this week. I was in the car and wanted to expand in a new direction on a long-cherished philosophy that process is more important than product. As I was dictating my notes in the car, with some jazz playing in the background, Ryder asked from the back seat “What is process over product” – It is always a test for me to explain complex ideas to my children so that they can grasp the basic understanding of them. I have developed an increasingly high respect for the skill and talent of their teachers in doing this every day.
Using my Socratic style, I engaged Ryder in the following dialogue- and was excited that on this occasion, he taught me (well, reminded me) of something very important.
Ryder: What is process over product mean daddy?
Me: Well, when you do crafts at school, is it more fun to make the crafts or to have the craft at the end?
Ryder (excited): Neither, the best part is sharing them with my friends!
Ahh out of the mouths of babes. It made me think that anyone focusing on how 21st Century Skills are being woven into our educational practices, here my 5 year old talks about creativity, he critically thought about what the best part of the experience is, he talks about sharing (collaboration), he communicates clearly what he feels, and above all, he shows great character in holding sharing with friends as the best part of any creative process.
Pat Bassett would be proud…
I have been planning and executing class trips for the last 15 years. Some trips have been purely for fun (taking 8th graders to Universal and Islands of Adventure every spring for instance), but many have been educational ( environmental overnights to 4H camps, museum visits, water monitoring etc). A third category of trips can be defined as adventurous, team and character building trips. These trips are meant to stretch individuals and groups by taking them out of their comfort zone, and requiring individuals to grow through the process, and to develop team work strategies so that everyone can overcome the challenge presented. In the past 2 years, we have taken groups of middle schoolers zip-lining in the Georgia mountains, Class III and IV whitewater rafting on the Ocoee, high ropes courses in north Georgia, and recently, we tackled the Georgia Tech Leadership Challenge Course. We have always referred to these trips as part of our experiential education program. While they are fun, and we all (myself included) learn a great deal about ourselves and our peers, the “educational” part has been largely untapped.
This year, I addressed this gap by applying strategies that I have used for years as an English teacher- we started using Rhetorical Modes as part of the trip process. Prior to the Georgia Tech trips (for our 7th and 8th graders), we engaged the students in conversations and had them write projectively about their expectations and feelings about the trip. We asked them to frame their thoughts around the following modes of rhetoric:
Causal Analysis- What are the various causes and effects that you expect to experience at the course?
Compare and Contrast- Compare and contrast this trip to others you have taken.
Narration: Can you tell a brief story of a previous experience that you suspect is similar?
Description: Paint a vivid picture using words of what you think the setting and experience will look and feel like.
Definition: Define some key terms- that is leadership? What is challenge?
Process Analysis: Describe methodically, the process of what you expect will happen at the course.
These rhetorical modes were the core of our pre-trip conversations, and we used much of the same language at the course. Upon returning to school, our follow-up activity once again revolved around these modes. This time, however, we asked the kids to think reflectively.
Causal Analysis- What are some causal relationships you observed or experienced at the course?
Compare and Contrast- Compare and contrast this trip to others you have taken.
Narration: Can you tell a brief story of a specific part of the experience?
Description: Paint a vivid picture using words of what the setting and experience looked and felt like.
Definition: Define some key terms- that is leadership? What is challenge? Did your definition of these terms change? How? Why?
Process Analysis: Describe methodically, the process of what happened at the course.
By using the rhetorical modes as a foundation for discussion and writing, we more successfully executed the educational part of the Experiential Education concept.
By giving students (and teachers) the tools to think more meaningfully about the experience before and after the trip, and by providing a framework for thinking, talking, and writing about all their experiences, we have provided a greater opportunity for growth in our students through such adventurous trips.
When I was starting to move into academic leadership roles, Dale Smith (who was our Head of School at the time), among many other important influences he had on my growth, encouraged me to always look for ways to recharge, replenish, and rejuvenate. After a very challenging, but rewarding year last year, we decided as a family that we needed to more purposefully, deliberately, and meaningfully pursue these three R’s.
We always talked about camping, but never actually went until this past summer. It has been life-changing, better yet, life-enriching. Over the past few months, we have explored many of the great parks in north Georgia. The beauty, isolation, detachment, and challenge of these adventures that I experience with my family have been invaluable.
Waking up in the morning in the woods with my family and our dog, Pickles (yes, that is really his name), awakens my spirit and renews my faith every time. Hiking through the trails, finding a fishing spot to cast (we haven’t caught anything yet, but the process of fishing together has made that matter very little), building a fire (we are getting really good at this challenge), and cooking vegetables that we harvested from our own garden, and eggs from our own chickens (yep, have them, too- Peck and Verdi) represent the calming routines of our days in the woods.
But what I think has captured me and refreshed my soul the most has been the simple times sitting by the water and watching it ripple by. I never noticed how relaxing the water can be until last spring on the 7th grade field trip to Wahsega. I found myself drawn to the waterfall there because it was simultaneously relaxing, but also reflection-inspiring.
In the busy-ness of work, taking care of two small children, a house, dog, and two chickens, it can be very easy to make the excuse that going camping is more work than relaxation. It is a compelling argument that certainly does cross my mind at those moments when I have to remind (300 times in under an hour) the kids to keep the tent shut, not wander to the lake themselves, or take their shoes off in the tent. The set up and break down are also laborious. But the moments I describe above, all shared with my family, make taking the time to get away and unplug in the woods always worth the investment.
The enrichment that these experiences contribute to my family life invariably allow me to be a better educator as I return to school refreshed, rejuvenated, and replenished. Thanks Dale.
When I coached running backs, I always used the phrase “the magic is in the cutback”. The meaning is that while an offensive play was always sound on paper, and with strategic and well-practiced execution would yield a successful outcome, the magical play came when the runner took the basic play, and added talent, awareness, vision and skill to see the cutback opening and turn a solid gain into a scoring play.
This concept acts as a perfect metaphor for the relationship between a sound curriculum, well-executed instruction, and a scoring learning experience. Any coach worth his/her salt can draw a play that works on paper. The skilled coach can drill and practice the play, but the truly inspiring educator can connect with his/her players to work to infuse the athlete’s talent into the process thus making the play magical. The same holds true in the classroom.
A good teacher can take a solid curriculum and get basic, sound results. But the skilled and inspiring teacher can deliver high quality instruction to students with whom he/she is strongly connected to create the magical learning experience. There is such variety in curricular programs, and oftentimes, we allow ourselves to be romanticized by the marketing of some of them. In high quality schools, where everyone in the building is invested in achieving the mission of the school, the difference is not in the curricular options, but in the execution of instruction. A nimble thinker can take the basics, add creativity, passion, and enthusiasm to the process that is shared through a strong relationship to yield the magical, scoring, winning experience.
Regardless of the mission, approach, philosophies or goals of a school, all schools seeks to provide high quality instruction and experiences from which our students will grow and succeed. While the definition of “growth” and “success” will vary, at their core, instructional strategies don’t need to be mutually exclusive to a particular type of school. Traditional, progressive, parochial, public, Montessori, urban, rural, boarding- it does not matter. Quality instruction is quality instruction. The most creative, passionate, attuned, nimble, and skillful teachers will thrive regardless of environment.
Increasingly in the last score years, the heterogeneity of classroom populations has led to the evolution of instructional strategies aimed at meeting each student where she/he is, crafting activities and practices that nurture continued growth, and increasing attention to the development of skills we extrapolate as being integral in our future (21st Century Skills etc.).
With the advancements in technology, and the growing application of flipped classroom practices, using grouping strategies in the classroom to meet each student where he/she is has become easier to manage for teachers. Creating centers or stations, and grouping students according to a variety of criteria or methods, and then targeting specific skills or expectations to reach within those groups, utilizing an instruction or activity within a set amount of time is increasingly accessible in educational environs. In fact, due to the growing accessibility of such practices, for which their is an ever-expanding body of research that supports the effectiveness of them, educators have a burgeoning responsibility to incorporate these strategies in their schools and classrooms.
While change can be hard, especially for veteran teachers who grasp onto their traditional practices (which remain effective), the onus is on educational leaders to help all teachers recognize how to incorporate these strategies in ways that are comfortable, manageable, and familiar. Just as one size doesn’t fit all when we provide instruction and activities for our students, the implementation of grouping strategies, and stations creation will vary teacher to teacher, school to school, grade level to grade level and discipline to discipline.
If you are interested in discussing how to apply some of these strategies, please drop me a note and I am happy to work with you on doing so.