Remembering the Importance of Resilience

This was my final contribution to Trinity This Week, the School’s weekly publication which highlights “Notes from the Administrative Leadership Team” in the form of a short blog post on a weekly basis. The original post is on the Trinity site and can be found here.

As a young child, my hair tangled easily. I remember sitting on a stool in my parents’ bathroom, looking into the mirror and up at my mother, as she took a comb to my wet head and carefully, slowly, meticulously, combed the tangles out of my long sandy blond hair. As I reflect on those hours spent sitting still and grimacing with each catch in the comb, I can now see that it was really a beautiful time for my mother and me. Time spent talking, problem-solving, musing, laughing, arguing, connecting. Time spent just-the-two-of-us without interruption. Time spent building a stronger mother-daughter bond. Time spent combing out the tangles…literally and metaphorically.

As the end of the school year approaches, it’s easy to think that all of those “tangles” have been combed out of our children. It is natural to think of the end of the year as a time to celebrate all of the great successes and forget, in many ways, about the bumps in the road or even some of the mistakes and failures that happened throughout the year. As our Sixth Graders smile and accept their diplomas in just a few short weeks — in heels, in suits, and perfectly poised and confident — it’s important to remember that their learning process at Trinity has been full of plenty of successes but also a number of tangles as well. And just as I had my mother to help me tease out and recognize those tangles, our Trinity Sixth Graders graduate with the knowledge that their learning experiences have been rich – full of ups and downs and full of the support of parents, siblings, teachers, and of course, their peers.

Resilience is one of those 21st Century skills that is often cited in studies that highlight “the top essential skills for college and career.” At Trinity, we believe that the development of a number of skills is essential, resilience being one of them. From outdoor education trips to cooperative learning experiences in classrooms, the learning process – and not just the product – is something that is celebrated throughout the Trinity community. Carol Dweck’s research on motivation, achievement, and mindsets guides much of our focus on risk-taking and reflection. Developing a growth mindset (as opposed to a fixed mindset) is essential for children in the 21st Century. Trinity students must learn that their abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work – and that their brains and talent are just the starting point. Fostering growth mindsets not only creates a love of learning but also increased resilience in the face of risk-taking, struggles, and even failure as well.

So as we approach the end of the May, a time of year when achievement and accolades are often given so much attention, it’s important to spend time thinking and talking with our children about the process of growing, learning, and developing. Just as Trinity teachers begin each school year focusing on children’s strengths as part of our strengths-based educational approach, our teachers spend time at the end of the year reflecting on the growth that has occurred – academically, socially, emotionally, and in a myriad of other areas as well. Trinity children begin to understand that the journey with all of its ups and downs is something to reflect upon and be proud of. And that is an incredible accomplishment in itself.

If you are interested in learning more about the importance of resilience and child development, the following books may be of interest to you:

Learning from a Legend

(This post is cross-posted on the Notes from the Leadership Team Blog on Trinity School’s Website.)

If you haven’t seen Steve Jobs’ 2005 Commencement Address at Stanford University, it’s worth watching. I find it interesting that Jobs, arguably one of the greatest innovators throughout history, spends very little time in his address talking about the products that made him famous. Instead, he reflects on process…specifically how personalized learning, failure, and perseverance were integral to his career and ultimately to the success of his company. In my mind, the legacy that Steve Jobs leaves for all of us is powerful: we must value and celebrate the process. We must try to relinquish our focus on product.

So what does this look like in education? In parenting? What might we all learn from Steve Jobs?

1. We can learn that personalizing learning matters.

“The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn’t interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting…I loved it. And what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on.”

Jobs dropped out of Reed College after only six months and did so to pursue a personalized path to learning. Although he “dropped-out” of college, he spent his time “dropping-in” to classes like calligraphy. These classes, more aligned to his passions and strengths, allowed him to build a foundation for his future and even shaped the distinct typography that personal computers have today. What if Jobs didn’t possess the self-knowledge and confidence to chart his own path?

2. We can learn that failure shouldn’t be feared.

“I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me…It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.”

Even though Jobs was fired from Apple, the company he started in his parents’ garage, he wasn’t deterred by failure. Instead, he saw failure as opportunity. He was able to reflect, connect-the-dots, and grow from what was a personally and professionally difficult time in his life. What if Jobs hadn’t possessed the ability to reflect and grow from seemingly insurmountable obstacles?

3. We can learn that perseverance is priceless.

“I’m pretty sure none of this would have happened if I hadn’t been fired from Apple. It was awful-tasting medicine, but I guess the patient needed it. Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith. I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love.”

Regardless of whether you are 5, 15, or 55, “sometimes life hits you on the head with a brick.” Jobs reminds us that it is our reaction to those setbacks which often determines our future. Jobs kept going, in part because he loved what he was doing, and also because he was used to overcoming setbacks. He learned perseverance by persevering and found many opportunities to practice. What if Jobs adopted a spirit of bitterness and resentment instead of a spirit of perseverance and optimism?

It’s tempting for all of us, as educators and as parents, to have a heightened focus on product. The B+ on the science test, the acceptances to secondary schools, the stickers on the behavior chart. However, at Trinity, our Mission Statement states that we aim “to create a community of learners in which each child can acquire the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to achieve his or her unique potential.” That knowledge, the skills, and those attitudes are sometimes hard to quantify.

It’s certainly easier to display a math test with a 100% score on the refrigerator or reward children for finishing a certain number of chapter books, but how can we, just as Jobs reminded us in his Commencement Address, honor and celebrate our children’s processes of learning, of growing, and of becoming young people who will – at some point in the future – do great things? If we are always focused on the product or the “end-thing” (whatever that thing may be), we may overlook those very valuable moments of growth and development happening right before our eyes. These moments, all part of the learning process, often matter more than the end product. They are they moments which Jobs alluded to that shape character and more substantially impact a child’s life and journey toward realizing their unique potential.

What Do Students and Teachers Say about 21st Century Learning?

(This post is cross-posted on the Notes from the Leadership Team Blog on Trinity School’s Website.)

Last week, Heidi Hayes Jacobs spent two full days immersed in the learning community of Trinity School. She not only delivered presentations to faculty, staff, parents, and members of Trinity’s Board of Trustees, but she also facilitated book clubs and spent six hours examining the School’s social studies curriculum alongside a small group of faculty and administrators. Heidi’s book, Curriculum 21, focuses on upgrading curriculum to make schools places which prepare students for a changing world.

The last chapter of Curriculum 21, entitled “It Takes Some Getting Used To,” is appropriately named. Let the book’s final sentences sit with you for a while:

“If we accept that we need to prepare students for a vastly different future than we have known, then our understanding of the focus of education also needs to shift. This change will require a curriculum that provides individuals with the dispositions necessary to engage in lifelong learning. Simultaneously, our vision of the teacher’s role needs to shift from that of the information provider to one of a catalyst, model, coach, innovator, researcher, and collaborator with the learner throughout the learning process.”

So, how do we even define this new type of teaching and learning?

For me, I can walk through the halls of Trinity, popping into classrooms where rich, collaborative, thoughtful, and sometimes loud and messy learning is taking place and a definition begins to emerge. If all of us had the opportunity to take these “learning walks” through the ELD and ULD hallways, we’d certainly construct a variety of definitions.

After Heidi’s visit, I wondered what the children would say about this new type of learning and teaching. What would Trinity’s own faculty have to say? On Thursday and Friday of last week, I took my video camera each time I left my office in order to capture some student and teacher reflections on what makes a good 21st century teacher. What can we learn from the student and teacher responses?
http://blip.tv/play/hI0ngtamMgA

What if you could check out a rabbit? #nxtchp2011

What if library was a verb? What if librarian was concierge or coach or therapist? What if second graders and seniors used the library to build a dinosaur…together? What if the library was made up of yurts or kitchen islands or secret passageways? What if the library was a social buzzing place? What if the library could be every child’s academic advisor? What if the library could be every person’s therapist? What if library was school lobby? What if library was school hallway? What if library was school?

What if you were asked to design an agile ecosystem of wonder, care, creation, and exchange for the modern learner – and for society – and call that ecosystem library…what would it be?

As I reflect on my weekend of what ifs and whys and hows and let’s, I am struck by how the simple design process (with inspiration from Abraham Lincoln and also from the art of improvisation) allowed for a group of librarians, teachers, students, administrators, designers, futurists, and architects to turn into true educational visionaries. I’m struck by our ability to listen, imagine, and create not only a vision for the future of the K-12 library but also the future of learning.

In the coming weeks and months, all of the work from the weekend will be posted in one way or another on the Reimagine: Ed – Next Chapter site and will also be tagged with the #nxtchp2011 hashtag on Twitter.  Things like this video by Brian, Rebecca and Bo on the Library as Kitchen Island “Flash Cart” prototype (a response to designing the unquiet library) as well as the presentation by the group who hacked this Starbucks cup and turned it into Library as Yurt prototype (a response to designing the library as the park of possibilities) will continue to spur this weekend’s RE:ED group and others toward unlocking the next chapter of the K-12 library.

But this week, today even, as I returned to my school and to my office which is (interestingly) housed in the central hub of Trinity which is the Media Center, I was certainly thinking of both process and product. Sure, the ideas from the three design challenges (especially the one I tinkered with all weekend: What must K-12 libraries do to spur continual innovation and to make libraries the places and spaces our learners crave going forward?) surfaced. Yeah, today I daydreamed about  prototypes and products that were imagined, discussed, debated, and sketched on whiteboard walls, post-it notes, and on the back of cocktail napkins.

But…what will most directly affect my work this week and in the months to come has so much more to do with process than product. And if  libraries = learning = life, then what I learned from this weekend’s process is applicable from today until way past the time when my school re-imagines library as both a noun and a verb.

If the words to the right are words that matter (and I believe they do),

I see how they could infuse my work (and my life)

and shape my outlook (or even my destination)…

So, what do I need to do to get there? How do I need to grow? What can I learn to do better? Well, to start…

#1: (Learn to) Say “Yes, and…” — I was challenged early in the weekend by Zac Chase who taught us a few rules of improv, all of which I need some practice with both as mindsets and as statements. Two of the mindsets we were encouraged to adopt during the weekend — “My idea is good, and I like your idea better” in addition to “Yes, and…” — certainly shaped the conversations and propelled our ideas to higher level of creativity and risk. Simply saying Yes+And and not Yes+But (or even Yes+Yet) was a challenge for me. And it’s something I need to work on. Sure, playing Devil’s Advocate has its time and place, but this weekend I learned how much that role can kill innovation. According to the RE:ED folks, the Yes+And mentality allows everyone to “embrace a growth mindset, build on each other’s ideas, and celebrate new viewpoints and roles.” Pretty important to not stifle those things by a silly three letter conjunction.


#2: (Learn to) Love Creative Abrasion — I have always appreciated Peter Senge’s idea of creative tension and this weekend I learned that the design process has the potential to turn that tension into something closer to creative abrasion…and that’s actually a good thing.  Something I learned from Jeff Sharpe, who truly was more of a sherpa than facilitator this weekend, has to do with failure. The thing about the cutting room floor, he described, is that there’s great stuff on the  floor. And usually that great stuff is a result of a lot of messy learning. There were moments on Saturday (many, in fact) where the process seemed stalled, backwards, and frustratingly counterproductive…and even if that wasn’t the goal, it was the point. Lots of us were trying and failing and there were a number of ideas left on the floor…and it was up to the forces of the collaborative group to move individuals (me being one) to try harder and fail better. At one moment late on Saturday afternoon, I was ready to check-out, to leave for a run, and return the next morning with energy and a rested mind. I’m thankful for the model of my friend and colleague who felt the same frustration and was committed to staying through the process. Late on Saturday afternoon, we didn’t know what we were doing but we knew we could do it. We knew it was possible and we just had to figure it out. Sitting in the backwater eddy of creative tension (according to Bo Adams) or the hydraulic of creative abrasion (according to yours truly) allowed for us as individuals and as a collective group to get to the high level of creative success for the remainder of the weekend. We certainly ended the weekend sprinting with reckless abandon, grinning ear to ear, as Christian Long so beautifully described in less than 140 characters.

 

#3: (Learn to) Think of Ideas as Currency — The push of the weekend, articulated by the RE:ED Leadership Team and Provocateurs time and time again, consistently centered on the value of ideas and ideation. On Sunday, one design group envisioned Library as Market/Bazaar and explicitly stated that ideas and curiosity were the currency in this place. Interestingly, throughout the weekend, this was certainly the case as ideas, both large and small, were most valuable and held in high regard. More and more, I saw that ideas beget ideas. I was challenged in my own thinking…in our schools, do we honor ideas as valuable currency? Do we give ideas time to marinate or even allow for the ideation process to take place — failure and all? As design groups, we were allowed to create the learning spaces where ideas flourished. We had freedom. Tables became idea walls, chairs became office supplies, and we could get up, eat, drink, and go to the bathroom at will. We did not have to wait a bell to tell us where to go and what to do and we were allowed to sit in the backwater eddy for as long as we wanted or needed. A phrase like “I have a really wacky idea,” was met with smiles and exclamations, “Awesome! Good! Let’s hear it!” Even a “What if you could check out a rabbit?” idea was met with wide smiles and an exclamation, “What IF you could check out a rabbit!”

     

This weekend was one that was full of YesAnds, Creative Abrasion, and Ideas. It was a weekend about library as both noun and verb. It was a weekend of what ifs and collective reimagining of the future.

It was a weekend about libraries…about learning….and about life. 

Thanks to the RE:ED team for the experience and for the inspiration.

What’s the next “What if?”

Moral vs. Performance Character (and Failure)

A parent shared this NYT Magazine article with me and it’s a fascinating read: What if the Secret to Success is Failure? Honestly, Samuel Beckett’s quote about failure is, in my opinion, a better commentary on the importance of failure and its relationship to success…and it’s only 12 words.

But Paul Tough’s article provides an interesting account of what leaders at Riverdale Country School and KIPP Infinity (both in New York City) are doing to instill stronger character in the lives of their students. The almost 7000 word article also provides commentary on moral vs. performance character…and the approach that these two very different schools are taking to not only investigate students’ character quotient but also  improve students’ character within their school and home life. You’ve heard of a Grade Point Average? What about a Character Point Average?

As I read Paul Tough’s article, I couldn’t stop thinking of the importance of this date in the life of my father, a man who possesses unquestionable character and who has modeled countless “secrets to success” throughout his life. On this actual day — September 15, 2011 — 40 years ago, my father and his friend founded their accounting firm. In 1971, my father and Joe Smith flipped a coin to determine which name came first and Smith and Howard was born. For a full year, my father did not take any money from the firm as my mother was working and his partner’s wife was a stay-at-home mother of two children and any S&H profits needed to go to support them. As I listened to my father and his colleagues speak about the history of the firm this evening, I was reminded of the power of character. The motto of S&H from the beginning has been that S&H is “a place where people count and service matters.” The values of the firm are clients, (S&H) people, excellence, integrity, perpetuity/leadership, growth, profits, partnership. Moral character matters and it’s always been those values of respect and honesty, those “nice-guy values,” which have propelled his firm forward.

Tough includes a few of the Riverdale Headmaster’s thoughts on values and teaching character:

Randolph told me that he had concerns about a character program that comprised only those kind of nice-guy values. “The danger with character is if you just revert to these general terms — respect, honesty, tolerance — it seems really vague,” he said. “If I stand in front of the kids and just say, ‘It’s really important for you to respect each other,’ I think they glaze over. But if you say, ‘Well, actually you need to exhibit self-control,’ or you explain the value of social intelligence — this will help you collaborate more effectively — then it seems a bit more tangible.”

And speaking of tangible, Tough writes of KIPP Infinity’s approach toward instilling character:

Logistically, the character report card had been a challenge to pull off. Teachers at all four KIPP middle schools in New York City had to grade every one of their students, on a scale of 1 to 5, on every one of the 24 character indicators, and more than a few of them found the process a little daunting. And now that report-card night had arrived, they had an even bigger challenge: explaining to parents just how those precise figures, rounded to the second decimal place, summed up their children’s character.

As I reflect on my father, the strength of his firm as a place where people and service truly matter, and on the state of character within our schools — both private and public — I worry about quantifying character as another item to be scored or another unit (of 24) to be taught and tested.

What can we do in our schools to remove the carrot and stick mentality of so many of the character education programs? What can we do to instill an understanding in our children that people matter?  What can we do to show children that building a life with strong morals and character doesn’t require the use (or threat) of a Character Point Average?

“Turning Lost Into Found”

Last month, I wrote about a former Trinity School student who is both a problem-finder and a problem-solver. An important piece of Trinity’s Sixth Grade Program is the Capstone Project which is the culminating project of students’ elementary school career. These projects have a specific goal: students must apply what they have learned through research and demonstrate understanding through a real-life application project which is independently designed. Students are encouraged to build, change, manipulate, operate, relate, or solve, and that’s just what Andrew Hennessy did with his “lost and found prototype.”

Andrew was selected to speak at the TEDxKIDS@BC event which takes place on September 17, 2011. His talk, “Turning Lost Into Found” will be livestreamed at some point between 2:00 PM and 2:30 PM (EDT) during the “playing for life” strand. You can watch it here on Saturday. The biography Andrew submitted for this event beautifully illustrates something Jenifer Fox writes about in her book, Your Child’s Strengths. Fox writes that “over a lifetime, children encounter a variety of symbolic systems across a wide range of disciplines and their minds develop all sorts of ways to absorb, make sense of, and interact with these systems. This is what learning is.” As I reflect on Andrew’s biography, I see that he so freely expresses his passions and interests…it’s clear that he understands those systems –both symbolic and real — which he faces as a young adolescent and learner. According to Andrew’s bio, he “is a curious 12-year-old finding ways tackle everyday challenges using technology.”

“My name is Andrew Hennessy. I just turned 13 and I love using technology to solve problems. I am fascinated with robotics and mechanical devices. My older brother and I argue over who gets to see the latest issue of Popular Science first. ‘Mythbusters’ and ‘How Stuff Works’ dominate the DVR recordings at home and I am always thinking of new projects to create out of Make Magazine. While I take school seriously, I also play soccer and roller hockey and run cross country. I love cooking with my Mom and playing golf with my Dad.”

Learning @ Lunch with Preschoolers


For the past three days, I have had the opportunity to eat my lunch with some of the preschoolers who stay at school after their normal 11:30 dismissal for “lunch bunch” and afternoon enrichment. Despite an occasional spilled juice or flying spaghetti noodle, it’s been pretty tame.

Today, I ate with a handful of boys and girls and asked a simple question: What did you learn today? With full mouths of food and drink Without hesitation, these kids in Trinity’s three-year-old program and pre-k, began sharing their stories of learning. I even had to get my iPad out to write down all of the things they learned!

Grace told me about “rhyme time” in class and the tongue-twisters she learned along with her classmates. She then recited one for me! I wonder if she’ll gain a greater interest in words as she grows…

David told me about all of the shapes he learned today. The circle, the square, and the diamond. When I asked if the diamond was a hard shape to learn, he quickly said that it wasn’t becuase it was just like a square but different. I wonder if he’ll have the ability to think differently about traditional objects and ideas as he grows…

John told me that he learned about being cooperative and polite in the classroom and on the playground. He told me that “cooperative and polite” were two of the most important words in his classroom. I wonder if he’ll grow into a compassionate leader one day…

Hart told me that he learned that he loved pirates today. When I asked him what he loved about pirates, he said that he loved them so much he couldn’t name just one thing! I wonder if Hart will catch the travel bug and explore the world around him…

The learning that these four children so freely shared (and the wondering that it initiated in my own mind) reminds me of the value of breaking away from typical daily patterns and routines at school. Had I not eaten lunch with these wide-eyed and energetic preschoolers, I would have missed out on hearing about their learning and doing some learning on my own.

What’s a routine you need to break? What learning and wondering are you missing out on that you don’t even realize?