Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Goals: Big Goals

Just now I was watching a 5-year old girl (a small one, at that) shooting a basketball at a 6-foot hoop. The first six or seven shots rose no more than halfway to the basket; and twice her two-hand shot failed to clear the back of her head. On her eighth attempt she hit the rim, and jumped in delight. Her next shot rose no further than halfway to its goal. Progress is never a smooth curve.

Inside the school, waiting for the 5 and 6-year olds to return, were two long number chains: the 9-chain and the 10-chain. The 9-chain goes up to 729 and the 10-chain goes up to 1000. The children count each bead, laying out little number tickets at each multiple of the base number until they reach the end. Then they write all the multiples on a long roll of paper.

This is big work.

Around the corner a team of 12-year olds was squaring polynomials. The work began weeks ago with (a + b)2. Now they are working on squaring the alphabet.

Say what?

Squaring the alphabet: (a+b+c+d+...+x+y+z)2. While (a+b)2 has 4 terms, when you square the alphabet you get 676 terms. This is big work. And big work takes big paper. They were working on a sheet of graph paper nearly 20-feet long.

Was this drudgery or child abuse? Neither. In fact, the students said it was more fun because the work was so big. The work is so big they have to plan it out like contractors plan the construction of a building. They broke the job up into sections and then looked at the calendar for the remaining days in the school year. The had to plan around Cinco de Mayo dance practices and the trip to Williamsburg.

Big work and big goals teach many things. Learning to manage projects is a 21st Century objective. Shooting and shooting and shooting until you hit the rim helps you to get comfortable on the steep part of the learning curve--and prepares you for the false starts and failures you will always encounter in achieving big goals. And simply being encouraged to take on big work, rather than having tasks broken down into bite-size pieces, expands your expectations for yourself.

Emerson said, "Hitch your wagon to a star." I love this comment. I think about the little red wagon I had as a kid. Usually I kept my eyes down when I was pulling that wagon, watching the load in order not to spill it. That was diligent and practical. Those kids who are checking the calendar to make sure they'll have time to complete their project are being diligent and practical. But they've also hitched their wagon to a star. Who knew you could square the alphabet? I never did that in algebra...and they haven't even gotten to a bona fide algebra class yet. They have learned not to be intimidated by big work, and that they are capable of great things.

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