Friday, February 3, 2012

At this time of year, my thoughts often turn to “next steps.” The first semester has wrapped up; our seniors have (for the most part) finished their college process; our juniors are beginning the senior leadership process and are taking the next step in their journey towards college; departments are finalizing course offerings for next year; and we made a change in the way that we did end of semester assessments. 

The decision to do end of semester assessments in a different way created a swell of excitement, concern, and happiness in both teachers and students. Teachers were asked to reconsider their notions of cumulative assessment – both form and validity; students had to devise a different way of reviewing and preparing for those assessments they did have. Prior to “exams” some students expressed unease over having to take exams AND stay current with their classes; after, at least according to the students I have spoken with, most they felt that they much preferred this setup – although they were still busy, they felt less anxious. Several have also said that they enjoyed their Winter Break much more as they did not feel they needed to spend the two weeks studying for exams. Interestingly, the absence of our traditional exam week has lessened the feel of the transition from the first semester to the second. 

Our juniors and seniors are on the cusp of even bigger transitions in their lives. Over the next several months, the seniors will begin their transition out of Wooster (without, we hope, succumbing to senioritis) and the juniors will begin their transition into the leadership roles on campus. While many of our students outwardly express the “I can’t wait” feeling, many also exhibit feelings of apprehension and disquiet as they finally come face to face with the transitions to which they have long aspired. It is important that we, as faculty and parents, give them the room to take those first tentative steps into this phase of their lives, while standing behind them ready for those times when they turn to us with fear in their eyes. 

Transitions force us out of our comfort zones. Changes create excitement as well as anxiety. The challenge, and yet the key, is not to let that nervousness allow us to back away from something we know is right.  It is in this place of tension that we develop a deeper understanding of ourselves, and gain the strength and courage to face the new things headed our way.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Mistakes... again (but not really!)

“Mistakes are an indication, not of failure, in these classrooms, but of what still needs to be learned.” - Alina Tugend

Over the last year, I have often thought, read, and written about the idea that we need to give kids a safe space in which to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes. I continue to believe that students learn as much (sometimes even more) from their mistakes as from challenges met.  Finding the appropriate level of challenge is a complex process. If the homework, project, or test question proves too challenging, students may give up; if the assignment is too easy, they get bored (sometimes resulting in little effort going into the assignment). If students take on too heavy a course load, they often find that they struggle with meeting the expectations in classes; if their load is too easy, they end up feeling as if they have nothing to do. As teachers and parents, we want to encourage our students to push their limits, to take risks, but we also want to help them to find the balance between what is too demanding and what is not demanding enough.

As an educator, I strive to find the correct level of challenge for the students. Whether it’s in choosing the problems I assign for homework or in helping a student decide upon an appropriate course load, I need to create a way for each student to be push his/her own limits without feeling discouraged when they inevitably run into obstacles. In my classes, I ask my students to work collaboratively, often presenting problems to each other during class. This process allows me to assess their level of understanding on a daily basis without the pressure of feeling like they are being graded on that level of understanding. This daily “temperature taking” provides me with information about the level of challenge they are facing. As a result, I can adapt as needed. 

This year, Mr. Golding has challenged us – faculty, students, parents – to expand our horizons, to push those boundaries of the safe and known, to step into the unknown and take risks. Taking these steps is only possible when one feels safe and supported, both at home and at school. Our kids are curious, they want to explore and try new things. Our job is to help foster that drive by supporting and encouraging them when their challenges seem too big and celebrating their successes.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Ask Dangerous Questions!

This sentiment flowed through Dr. Stunt’s chapel service this past Monday. As he shared stories of a previous teaching experience at Stowe School in England, he used a song by a graduate of that school to emphasize how schools can sometimes be places that limit, rather than expand – places that teach kids to be “sensible, logical, responsible, practical, analytical” at the expense of seeing, appreciating, and marveling at the magic and wonder of the world. This is where dangerous questions come in – questions that may not always be on topic, or logical, or sensible, but indicate a student is working at making a connection to or between the class material and his/her life. 

As a teacher, I want students to ask dangerous questions, to push beyond the basic facts. One question that I have often heard in classes is “when will I ever use this?” In asking, and then attempting to answer, this question, students expose themselves to entire fields of study that they might never have known about otherwise.  Parents encourage their two-year-olds when they run around the house asking “why?” but as kids get older adults often have less patience with that question. We need to continue to encourage our kids to ask us “why” even when providing the answers isn’t comfortable (just as we need to ask them “why” so that they push to find answers for themselves). It is up to us to help them keep the magic and wonder of childhood present in their lives as they also learn how to become responsible adults.

These thoughts are particularly relevant to me at this time of the year. As course signup sheets come in I field questions from parents and students: “What should I take?” “What will present the best resume to colleges?” These are important, but just as vital are the questions “What courses excite you?” “What class do you WANT to take?” Colleges are looking for strong academic resumes, but just as notable are students who have a passion for something and distinguish themselves as individuals because of it.

Schools should be a place where students ask dangerous questions – the ones that they, and perhaps even their teachers, don’t know the answers to; that lead to self-understanding; that may not always be comfortable. In taking these risks they discover their passions and who they are as individuals.

The Kancamagus Highway in northern New Hampshire is a gorgeous drive through the White Mountain National Forest. Although the road is relatively short (only 28 miles), my wife and I spent 2 hours driving along it. We had a plan, we knew where we were going, but along the way we stopped, started, turned around, asked ourselves “what’s down there?” Not everything we stopped to look at was interesting, but each new stop offered the possibility of finding something unique and different from the place before. I would like to think that schools in general, and Wooster in particular, provide students with a similar experience. There is a goal, but along the way we want kids to explore, to take risks, to sometimes be wrong, to find the answers to their questions and not just ours, and most importantly, to find those unique experiences that lead them to self-discovery.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Make Excellent Mistakes...

For a long time I've admired my partner's commitment to sharing herself and her personal journey through blogging. This year, as I've moved into an administrative position at the school where I work, I decided that this would be a good forum through which to explore my thoughts on education and leadership - and I'm finally getting around to actually doing it!

My first post is what I wrote for the March issue of the US Voice and is the source of the name of my blog...


As I think back over all of the workshops, sessions, and presentations I attended at the annual conference for the National Association of Independent Schools last week, the one piece that I’ve found myself going back to again and again is the phrase “Make Excellent Mistakes.” In his book, The Adventures of Johnny Bunko, Daniel Pink follows this statement with
Too many people spend their time avoiding mistakes. They’re so concerned about being wrong, about messing up, that they never try anything – which means they never do anything. Their focus is avoiding failure. But that’s actually a crummy way to achieve success.
As an educator, I see this tendency every day – the students who read a problem and ask for help before making a solid attempt, the students who are shy about offering their own ideas in class for fear that they might be wrong, and the teachers (including myself) who find reasons for not trying something new because it might not go as envisioned. In many ways, the system is stacked against our students. We want more from them, we want them to take risks, to try new things, to push their limits, but then we turn around and talk about the importance of good grades for college, about building a strong resume. The mixed message can be hard for teenagers to navigate.
In my classroom, I make efforts to create an atmosphere where students are free to try without worry about how their result, success or failure, will impact their grade. Students read and work on new material on their own and with each other, present problems on the board, and give each other feedback. The goal is help them be comfortable with uncertainty, to take the risk to go to the board even when they aren’t sure they completely understand the concepts. Any mistakes they make in this process are “excellent mistakes” – mistakes that come from having high aspirations for what they can accomplish.
As teachers and parents, it is important for us to remind kids that making mistakes is an integral part of life. What’s important is not avoiding the mistakes, but what they do after having made one – how do they respond.