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:

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.”

Personalizing Learning I: Theory and Reality

In my mind, the theory of personalizing learning for students is simple: Connect with children on an individual level to learn about them in as many ways as possible; create opportunities for them to learn in ways which meet their varied needs and styles; allow for ample learning experiences with divergent paths in terms of process and product; assess for learning and of learning; push children to realize their unique potential as learners. The reality of doing that in a classroom with real-live students is, in a word, difficult. But that’s the idea, right? Connect…create…allow…assess…push. With learning as the focus…not teaching.

Sir Ken Robinson seems to agree (and apparently so does HH the Dalai Lama). As SKR urges schools to adopt personalized learning in both the article and throughout his most recent book, The Element, I’m wondering about the reality of it. Just as Will Richardson was weighed down by the question Seth Godin posed yesterday in a post entitled “Back to the Wrong School” (“Are we going to applaud, push or even permit our schools (including most of the private ones) to continue the safe but ultimately doomed strategy of churning out predictable, testable and mediocre factory-workers?”), I’m similarly weighed down. This transformation that SKR urges is great in theory. But quite a challenge in the classroom (no matter how large or small), in a school, and of course in a district, city, state, or national system of education which Godin explains, “churn(s) out millions of of workers who are trained to do 1925 labor.”

So, what do we do about that? Because I agree with Will on this one…

To answer his question…and SKR’s call to transform (not reform) education, I am motivated by “what we — at Trinity — are doing this year.” Since the approval of Trinity’s Strategic Vision in May 2008, we have been working to make personalizing learning a reality. The reality of doing that, of course, has taken years and will continue for many years to come. At Trinity, we say that personalized learning is tailoring education in ways that fulfill the unique potential of each student. The goal of personalizing learning is to enhance every child’s ability to become a responsible, productive, and compassionate member of the expanding global community.  A key assumption is that the more a child knows about his or her learning, the more he or she will thrive as a learner in and out of school.

Our first step in this process of personalizing…this disrupting and transforming…was a switch in our foreign language curriculum and instructional methods. The second, and much larger step, is the development of a learning profile and portfolio (a PLP) for all of our students from the three-year-olds to the sixth graders. You can read more about Trinity’s approach to personalizing learning in a blog post written last year by our Head of School, Stephen Kennedy.

The cool thing that struck me as I participated in today’s faculty meetings “launching” Phase II of this process (Phase III being that we’re “all in” with each child having a PLP), is that we are disrupting in a way that, initially, seems so passive.  Today we talked about the power of observation. I wished we had coined it “active observation” because that’s just what it is. How should we observe to make us more aware of each child in our class? What methods might we employ to notice in a way that leads to greater understanding of how to personalize learning for the students in the classroom? This kind of observing is certainly not a passive process…and without a deep level understanding of this piece, the larger goal of actually personalizing learning would not, in my opinion, be realized.

It was a powerful beginning to this second phase. And a powerful reminder to me. It’s one thing to say that we should be personalizing learning. It’s another thing to actually commit to doing so. So often we want to rush to action. To move from theory to reality swiftly. To fix. To do. To hire. To fire. As I sat amongst my colleagues and listened to them push one another to think differently about observation, I felt as though disruption was happening. That mindsets were being shifted. That the reality of personalizing learning, at least within the walls of Trinity School, is closer than it was last year. And that’s a good thing.

A Learning-Centered Life

You have wasted a day if you haven’t learned something new.

The most recent piece by David Brooks explores “The Question-Driven Life” of Philip Leakley. While “some people center their lives around money or status or community or service to God, [the life of Leakley] seems to be a learning-centered life, where little bits of practical knowledge are the daily currency, where the main vocation is to be preoccupied with some exciting little project or maybe a dozen.

Why aren’t our schools more focused on cultivating learning-centered lives?

What can we do about it?


“First Day” (Part II)

So, I’m lucky enough to work less than two miles from my good friend and fellow educator, @KPlomgren. We went to high school together (actually 7th – 12th) and she was always the one with the most glamorous job of divvy-ing up the bill at the end of a meal. She actually still gets that assignment when we go to dinner with a large group! Some would say that Katie displayed her strengths early in life…she did end up as a CPA and now she teaches kids math in a major way.

At some point today, I saw this tweet from Katie as a part of the #day1wms experiment:

Of course, I wondered what was going on. After speaking to Katie briefly this afternoon, I learned that her “tech mishap” was minor…and in fact, an incredible lesson for her students and to her colleagues as well. On this, the first day of school, her students learned that it’s okay to try, to fail, and to try (and maybe fail) again.

With our conversation still on my mind (and with all of my mistakes opportunities for learning from the day emerging), I came across @boadams1’s post (which includes a short video) about the first day of school. Imagine my surprise when I see my good friend and the excellent teacher @KPlomgren explaining the kind of learning environment that she wants to (co)create during the upcoming school year. Such good stuff. If you watch the video, you’ll hear from 2:16-2:33 that @KPlomgren wants to learn with her students…she wants to make sure they know that “it’s okay to try, to fail, and to try (and maybe fail) again.” What a lesson to impart to young learners on the first day of school. Both in words and in honest-real-life example.

Daily Curriculum Diet

A few weeks ago, Dan Meyer spoke to a group of Atlanta educators during his week of PD with math teachers at two neighboring schools. While the majority of his work  revolves around the math-world, it’s certainly applicable and a good-kind-of-challenging for all educators. (A quick sidenote: I was especially impressed to have one of Trinity’s music teachers attend Dan’s presentation and then engage him for a good five minutes about how his work directly connects to the music eduction.)

During his formal presentation, Dan advocated for all of us to think about cutting “things” out of the routine curriculum diet. Heidi Hayes Jacobs, when she visited Trinity last year, prescribed similar action, encouraging us to think of upgrading to our curriculum (cutting being an obvious step in the “upgrade” process).

Interestingly, as I shared some of Dan’s words and challenges via Twitter, a ninth grade student at a neighboring school responded:

Instead of answering the question (and most certainly boring her), I did what any adult who didn’t know the answer to her own question teacher would do and asked her the same question…”Cut what?”

Within a few days, I received an email from @TaraSubmarine’s which contained incredibly thoughtful, mature, and detailed insight. I have shared her ideas below. It’s amazing what we can learn from those who must “do school” every day…and then head home for a second shift. As we debate endlessly about school reform, I do wonder why do we ignore the most important voices in the room?

I’d love to hear your thoughts about curriculum and how to empower students through deep, authentic learning experiences. I certainly believe that content and skills are important…but I do wonder what content we should cut in favor of meaningful learning opportunities (whatever those may be. 

@TaraSubmarine’s thoughts are below:

When you say “deep authentic learning experiences”, the first thought that comes to mind, is incorporating more practical (real life) or personal applications for what we learn. The practical bit relates more to math and science but could apply to other subjects as well*, which I’m sure you know. The personal application criteria stems from something my dad read once. It said that people retain information better when it forms a connection to something they are already familiar with. Basically, this to me means using already solid blocks of knowledge/information as starting points or diving boards for learning new material. Having both practical and personal applications in a course would make the learning experience more empowering.

I also have some course specific ideas of what to cut and what to replace it with, for the “major” courses.
  • In science, I would use the required reading to tie in with a hands-on experiment and a connection to how it would the concept would appear/be used outside the classroom, thus fostering maximum retention. I would also either cut any extraneous info that wasn’t connected like I mentioned above, or find a way to connect the info and then incorporate it into the curriculum.
  • In math, I would cut the unrealistic problems (pseudo something I think they’re called) and replace them with fun, hands-on problems which after exposure and practice, the students could start developing themselves. Also,  I’ve always heard that if you could teach someone else on a concept then you can know how well you grasp the concept.  The students could see a one unit teaching model, where the teacher incorporates visuals, realistic problems and class participation. Then, they could split up to work alone or in pairs with the goal of teaching a class on their chapter. This could be possibly duplicated for an assessment at the end, in lieu of an exam/test.
  • In the foreign language classes, I like how Trinity uses Rosetta which enables the students to choose from a multitude of different languages. Also, I think a pen pal program, via the Internet to make it easier, should replace random essay writing. And, I feel like the subject material should not consist solely of vocab but also show how this vocab would be used in daily life. Some modules provide videos, but I know that students write these off as cheesy. So I think that the students should have a city of that country, research their customs and incorporate practical applications for the vocab per each lesson. Each student group would be assigned a lesson and teach the rest of the class. This would accomplish the same goals that I mentioned in the math section.

Pretty powerful stuff. And I’ll ask the question again…As we debate endlessly about school reform, why do we ignore the most important voices in the room?