Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Work worth doing

Whenever I've had the chance I used those 3 words to express my aspirations for my own children: that they find "work worth doing." I've tried to model that kind of thinking for the many parents I've worked with as a teacher and school head over the years--a sort of antidote to more prescriptive expectations we parents sometimes express. Here's an example from the book Plato and a Platypus Walked into a Bar:

"Mrs. Goldstein was walking down the street with her two grandchildren. A friend stopped to ask her how old they were. She replied, 'The doctor is five and the lawyer is seven."

The joke makes me smile until I think about the way we parents can pressure and deflect the aspirations of our children. Reminds me of the young man who quit medical school after two years to become a teacher--when he realized he was pursuing his parents' dream rather than his own.

"Work worth doing." Actually, I'm not sure where I picked up that phrase. I don't usually speak in sound bytes, so I'm sure I borrowed it from somewhere, though I've not really seen it anywhere else---until today: here's a little feature about Sandra Day O'Conner and her key to happiness:

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Teacher

Teachers: three archtypal advertising images:

A smiling young woman stands in front of a chalkboard, and looks at hands raised from desks.

Five students gather around a table-top globe, and look attentively as their teacher points out a location.

A young man stands, shirt sleeves rolled up, in front of hands raised from desks.

The ASCD prides itself on promoting best practice in the world of education, and these are the images it employs to promote its 2009 summer conference.

The three photos are at the bottom of a brochure page. They are so everyday, so innocuous, they are nearly invisible. Looking again, looking closely, what do I see?

Teacher front and center. All activity funnels through the teacher. Student engagement limited to raising hands or looking on. Teacher controlling all activity. All students doing the same thing at the same time. Teacher as sage on the stage. I see the teacher smiling and the backs of the children's heads. Children locked in desks.

Who talks most in these classrooms? Who needs the most practice talking?

For each student there is a lot of wait time.

Our classrooms look very different. Our teachers teach in a very different way. Actually, Dr. Montessori emphasized the distinction by using a different name for the Montessori teacher. She called them directors or guides.

At times I look in a Montessori classroom and can't see the teacher at first. She can usually be found sitting on the floor or at a low, child-sized table giving a lesson to an individual child or a small group. The rest of the children are working on other other projects independently.

There is not a lot of wait time in a Montessori classroom. The teacher is not the funnel, not the controller, not front and center. We do not engage in "full frontal teaching".

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.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

"Enjoy the fun of failure"

Did that get your attention?

It's another take on failure for us type-A types. Failure. Get used to it if you are going to grow, to learn, to be creative.

In fact, it is one of the keys to happiness. And that leads me to the blog entry for the day from "The Happiness Project":


Monday, April 13, 2009

Book of the Day


Check out this blog entry for a very short interview with Trevor Eissler who has written the book Montessori Madness: A Parent to Parent Argument for Montessori.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

quote of the day

"Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly until you learn how to do it well."- Zig Ziglar

Wow! How counterintuitive in a pursuit of excellence world. But really, it begs the question, is your focus on the excellence or the pursuit?

If you are a learner rather than a knower, you are focused on the pursuit; you are willing to endure the steep part of the learning curve becuase you know that it comes with the territory, it comes with learning something challenging. And you're probably going to do it poorly until you learn how to do it well. Does that threaten your ego?

If you are a knower, it may. Being a knower may keep you off of the steep part of the learning curve because you don't want to embarrass yourself, or worry about being seen as incompetent. Since you are a knower, how could you not know?

So you don't try. Or you oppose change. Know anyone like that?

Now, here's the real question: what are the implications for school? In focusing on grades and class ranking, do we contribute to learning or do we contribute to fear? If you are aware that your work is going to be graded, are you willing to risk doing something creative and out of the box? Or would you do something that you already know how to do, something safe?

If we are not failing enough, we are not trying hard enough.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

quote of the day

Thanks to Lisa Camp for this quotation from the Buddha. It ties directly to yesterday's blog:

"Your work is to discover your world, and then with all your heart give yourself to it."

Monday, April 6, 2009

The Pursuit of Excellence

A very fine traditional school has launched a new initiative.

In the future the school aspires to "help students learn to make constructive use of the pressures that often accompany the pursuit of excellence.”

"Curiouser and curiouser," said Alice.

Tom Peters wrote the book The Pursuit of Excellence, so it must be an idea imbedded in our corporate identity. And I remember the aphorism, "Anything worth doing is worth doing well."

I think about my own goals as a parent and as a teacher. I certainly want to encourage excellence. However, I would rather that young people be able to answer the question, "What are you passionate about?"

It would be rather odd if a student said in anwer to that question, "the pursuit of excellence."

At our last alumni night, high school students and college students spoke about their interests, their majors, their future careers. Not everyone had an answer, but those who were still searching said something like: "I'm interested in music and physics, and also history--well, really, so many things. I haven't decided yet what I'm going to do." At least there is interest! They simply have not committed yet to a narrow focus. (Reminds me of Robert Lewis Stevenson's dedication to A Child's Garden of Verse: "The world is so full of a number of things, I think we should all be as happy as kings.")

Among those clear about their goals was a high school senior who wants to do work in microbiology. That's worth doing, and it's worth doing well.

I would suggest an alternative to the pursuit of excellence: Pursue your passion excellently. The passion comes first.