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:


“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.

The “First Day”

August 17th marks the first full day of school for all Trinity students. As I walked through the halls late this afternoon, I passed many doors with the lights still on…countless teachers putting the finishing touches on the classrooms, making sure their rooms were most welcoming to the elementary students who arrive before eight o’clock in the morning. Of course, the names on the cubbies, the bright bulletin boards, and the organized reading corner make the classroom feel like an exciting and comforting place. These things are so important. More important than the things, however, are the words and actions of the teacher and those of the students during those first minutes and hours of the school day. At Trinity, we spend the first days of school focusing on strengths chasing and what a difference this makes. What a difference those the first few hours make. What a difference those first few days make.

Ultimately, it’s about relationships…and those first days are invaluable.

At Trinity, we ask all teachers to reach out to their students before the beginning of school. Most teachers write letters or postcards and many students respond by sending pictures and notes in return. In essence, so many of our teachers begin building relationships with their students and embarking on strengths chasing  before those first days.

One of Trinity’s fifth grade teachers, Meredith Burris, did an interesting thing. She included the link to her blog in her (snail-mail) letter to her students. Meredith is an avid reader and plans to post on her blog, “Burris’s Blog for Bibliophiles: A Blog for Book Lovers and Becoming Book Lovers,” throughout the year. Her first post of this school year chronicled her summer reading life and invited readers to share highlights of theirs. The following sentences illustrate how passionate she is about reading, her strengths of writing and reflection, and (of course!) her love of the long days of summer:

I, too, love summer, but I look forward to it for a very different reason. I love summer because I can read – as long and as much as I want, whatever I want, wherever I want, and whenever I want. I love having the freedom to read all day long, if I so choose. I find myself getting up earlier and reading while I eat breakfast, or staying up l late until the early hours of the morning. There’s nothing better than finding a book that’s impossible to put down and having the luxury of not having to do so!

Even though Meredith’s post is powerful, I’m struck by the 20 (and counting!) comments which follow her post. Donovan responds to his teacher’s post almost immediately (on August 2nd…well before the first day of school)  and not only addresses his teacher’s love of summer but also acknowledges the number of books she read and added a few from his own list:

I like summer too Mrs. Burris. I like summer because it makes my schedule more open. Just like you I like to read all night because there is no school in the morning. It is so cool that you read 30 books in this one summer. This summer I read a Rick Riordon book called ” The Throne of Fire”. I am also reading the Hatchet series by Gary Paulson. I am in the middle of a book called “I Am Number Four”. I can’t wait for the school year to start, enjoy the rest of your summer.

If you scroll through all of the comments, you’ll see a beautiful thing. You’ll see relationships being formed around a common topic. You’ll see our Head of School commenting as well as a Trinity staff member and an administrator. If you keep scrolling down, you’ll come across a parent’s comment (a few comments below that of his daughter). Of course, the children’s comments are powerful. That’s a given. They are writing because they care. They are writing to connect. And they are writing to begin to form those relationships that will make their fifth grade year even more rich. Interestingly, I suspect that the adults who contributed are doing the same thing. They are writing because they care enough to connect. To connect with kids, with Meredith the teacher, with the topic, and in essence, with something that’s much larger than themselves.

From the fifth grader to the Head of Trinity School, the “first day of school in Mrs. Burris’s Fifth Grade Class” happened long before August 17th. Those first few real-live hours and those first few real-live days will still be invaluable. But what I know, and what I suspect that Meredith, Donovan, Kate, Allie, Annie, Ginny, Mrs. Berry, Emily, William, Mr. Pulver, Mr. Kennedy, Ellie, Wyatt, Isabella, Josh, Isabel and Eva know, is that August 17th is going to be a special day…and it’s not only because it’s the “first day.”


Unlocking Unique Potential

As I reflect on the administrative work I do at Trinity, I realize how clear and potent the mission statement of my school actually is.  Yes, many statements of mission/vision sound similar (especially at independent schools) and from the outside, one may think that the Trinity School Mission Statement is like many others. However, I work on a team with members who actively screen each decision they make with the School’s statement of purpose. It’s an incredible model for me and for all of the members of our community.

As I formulate my goals for the 2011-12 school year, I am reminded how two major initiatives of which I am a part (World Languages and the Personal Learning Portfolio) require that our statement of mission is clear, potent, and alive. In fact, my Head of School often states that he is driven, inspired, and obsessed with Trinity’s Mission Statement. As I think of the work I do, the following twelve words especially resonate:

unique potential

responsible, productive, and compassionate member of the expanding global community

Trinity’s Mission Statement (in full) is below:

“The Mission of Trinity School is to create a community of learners in which each child can acquire the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to achieve his or her unique potential and become a responsible, productive, and compassionate member of the expanding global community.”

I just finished a very full morning with all of the new faculty and staff at Trinity. As I listened to members of Trinity’s Academic Leadership Team speak about the School, I was reminded of Matt Damon’s speech at last weekend’s SOS March and National Call to Action. The text of his speech is below (to see the video of his speech, click here), but the word that kept coming to my mind this morning (and a word that Damon references during his speech) is the word empower.

As another school year begins, I realize how blessed I am to feel empowered in the job that I do.  Not all educators (and certainly not all administrators) feel empowered (and that is the crux of Damon’s speech) by the work that they do or, generally, by the vision/mission/direction of their school or school system.

What do I know for sure?

I know that as I embark on a new year, I know (for sure) that I am blessed to work in a school where “unlocking unique potential” is the status quo. I am blessed to work in a school with a leader who is known to operate and make decisions based on a mission which is a driving (both inspirational and obsessive) force in his daily work. I am blessed to be a part of a team which can so clearly and succinctly explain to a new group of faculty and staff that unlocking unique potential is why we are here. We must make Trinity’s Mission Statement come alive…we must be empowered and we must empower others.  It’s a big task.  And it’s about time to begin anew…


I flew overnight from Vancouver to be with you today. I landed in New York a few hours ago and caught a flight down here because I needed to tell you all in person that I think you’re awesome.

I was raised by a teacher. My mother is a professor of early childhood education. And from the time I went to kindergarten through my senior year in high school, I went to public schools. I wouldn’t trade that education and experience for anything.

I had incredible teachers. As I look at my life today, the things I value most about myself: my imagination, my love of acting, my passion for writing, my love of learning, my curiosity all come from how I was parented and taught.

And none of these qualities that I’ve just mentioned, none of these qualities that I prize so deeply, that have brought me so much joy, that have brought me so much professional success, none of these qualities that make me who I am…can be tested.

I said before that I had incredible teachers. And that’s true. But it’s more than that. My teachers were EMPOWERED to teach me. Their time wasn’t taken up with a bunch of test prep…this silly drill and kill nonsense that any serious person knows doesn’t promote real learning. No, my teachers were free to approach me and every other kid in that classroom like an individual puzzle. They took so much care in figuring out who we were and how to best make the lessons resonate with each of us. They were empowered to unlock our potential. They were allowed to be teachers.

Now don’t get me wrong. I did have a brush with standardized tests at one point. I remember because my mom went to the principal’s office and said, My kid aint taking that. It’s stupid, it won’t tell you anything and it’ll just make him nervous. That was in the 70s when you could talk like that.

I shudder to think that these tests are being used today to control where funding goes.

I don’t know where I would be today if my teachers’ job security was based on how I performed on some standardized test. If their very survival as teachers was based on whether I actually fell in love with the process of learning but rather if I could fill in the right bubble on a test. If they had to spend most of their time desperately drilling us and less time encouraging creativity and original ideas; less time knowing who we were, seeing our strengths and helping us realize our talents.

I honestly don’t know where I’d be today if that was the type of education I had. I sure as hell wouldn’t be here. I do know that.

This has been a horrible decade for teachers. I can’t imagine how demoralized you must feel. But I came here today to deliver an important message to you: As I get older, I appreciate more and more the teachers that I had growing up. And I’m not alone. There are millions of people just like me.

So the next time you’re feeling down, or exhausted, or unappreciated, or at the end of your rope; the next time you turn on the TV and see yourself called overpaid; the next time you encounter some simple-minded, punitive policy that’s been driven into your life by some corporate reformer who has literally never taught anyone anything. … Please know that there are millions of us behind you. You have an army of regular people standing right behind you, and our appreciation for what you do is so deeply felt. We love you, we thank you and we will always have your back.

Learning is Everywhere: Langley News

Learning is Everywhere

Image Credit: Photo courtesy of @L_Hilt

We have a fourth grader at Trinity who started her own newspaper this year. She has been working with our Director of Communications on her writing style which has improved drastically over the course of the school year.  When May’s edition of the Langley News appeared on my desk, I wondered about M. Langley’s motivation to start her own paper. She was happy to share:

The Langley News is my newspaper that I wrote. Why did I write it is a good question. I get many things from my dad and writing was what he was good at. Sometimes when I’m cleaning out cabinets I find little short 2 sentence stories that I wrote in Pre-K. When I write in my journal I feel free and writing has become my future and my past. I truly love writing stories and I enjoy my newspaper so much I can’t wait to start the next one! My favorite parts about the Langley News are writing it, seeing it all finished, and watching the people I give it to read it. In my classroom we are reading the book called The Landry News, that gave me the idea.

Writing isn’t something you can force me to do. I’ll do it on my own.

— M. Langley, Fourth Grader



Thinking about “Strengths Chasing” – Part II

“Simply put, strengths are the things that we do that make us feel energized and alive when we do them. Every single person has strengths. Children’s innate strengths are like live wires connecting their unique inner qualities to their promise as adults. Those wires have life’s most potent energy flowing through them, and we as adults have the power to amp up or damper down the energy flow. When the energy is turned up and strengths are developed to their fullest, people’s passions light up. -Jenifer Fox, Your Child’s Strengths

Strengths. Passions. Talents. How do we help children identify that which gives them energy and encourage them to pursue a path marked by purpose, connectedness, resilience, and fulfillment? Last summer, Trinity’s faculty and staff were asked to read Jenifer Fox’s book, Your Child’s Strengths, and even in the Spring, I continue to reflect on the ideas presented in the book. I’ve written (here and here) about the text, and I’m continually impressed with how much of it connects to the work we’re doing with personalized learning based on Trinity’s Strategic Vision, “The Child at the Center.” I wanted to share a few more thoughts and a reflection (written by a sixth grader named Josh) which perfectly illustrates the power of strengths-based education.

Fox encourages adults to engage in what she calls “strengths chasing.” An active process, helping children discover their strengths requires careful thought and deliberate questioning. When a child takes great pleasure, for example, in organizing books on a bookshelf, it is essential to distill the reason for the organizational habit. Is it enjoyable to alphabetize the books? Or is it that an organized bookshelf is helpful to other people? Or could it be that spending time arranging books and studying titles allows for creativity in future writing activities? It is important that we, as adults, help children chase down their strengths until it leads to what Jenifer Fox calls a “strengths epiphany.” Josh, a Sixth Grader, recently wrote a blog post about the process of finding his true passion. He writes eloquently about how both he and his parents engaged in strengths chasing. In a conversation with Josh, he expressed his love of swimming but explained that his experiences in the swimming pool have allowed him to discover a strength that translates to other areas of his life.

A Word: Passion

I get onto the field, I put on a helmet, and I pick up the bat. Then, I take a few steps onto the triangular shaped mat by the big, tall fence. I lift the bat onto my shoulder. The ball flies towards me. I see it, I swing the bat, and I miss the ball. Two more tries and still, I miss the ball. I walk back to where my team is sitting. I go through the season and it is finally over. I practice some during the winter and I try again in the spring. At practice and at the games, I’m not enjoying what I am doing. Then I realize something. Baseball is not my passion.

This is not the sport for me.

The next spring I decide to play soccer. I get all my gear and I am so excited. I jump into the car and head to practice. For the first few practices I like kicking the ball, shooting goals, and running with my friends. By the end of the season though, I again realized something.

This is not the sport for me.

I try tennis that winter, and I show up to all the practices. I then decide to start competing in tennis. I go to matches. I win some and I lose some. I am excited for some and not for others. This sport is fun, but I’m not passionate about it.

This is not the sport for me.

Then, my dad says that I have to stick with tennis. I beg him and ask him if I can try one more sport. He finally agrees. I think long and hard about a sport to try. I try to think what I will like. Then I decide. I was going to try swimming.

I have my first practice. I leap into the water and feel the cold water rush by my body. Chills are going up my spine. I am so excited. I attend all the meets and I love them. I get best times. I work hard at practice. After a long time, I had finally found it. Even though it is a vigorous sport, I think it is so enjoyable. I have a great passion for swimming. I realized something.

This is the sport for me.

That was four years ago. I have been swimming ever since and I love it. I truly believe that if you are passionate and you work hard at something, you can be the best that you can be.

Once a strength epiphany such as this has occurred, the real learning begins. Josh’s reflection and his description of leaping into the water and feeling the chills run up his spine beautifully illustrates the power of a strengths-based education. How can we better work with students to discover other tasks and areas of interest that engage certain strengths? How do we partner with parents and children in dialogue that evolves and develops throughout a student’s “school life” and culminates in an understanding of self they will carry with them long after they leave classrooms and hallways?