Monthly Archives: August 2015

More Beautiful Questions

photo (1)

There are all kinds of questions. Those that, when answered, hold us accountable: what town does a character in a book live in, what color are his shoes.

There are questions that, when answered, show that we are more than attentive to details — we are thoughtful. For example, Marie Laure in Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See is bereft of both literal and symbolic things – blindness, certainty – and in observing that, we reveal ourselves to be engaged, reflective, even empathetic.

And then there are those questions that we can’t so easily dispatch. Classic literature like The Scarlet Letter provides infinite examples. Why does Hester Prynne protect the identity of Pearl’s father even though doing so only adds fuel to the fire of Salem’s disdain? Further – is she a victim of love, or naivete, or a person in control who chooses a noble course of action, or something completely different? And, further still, is the desire to protect another’s reputation above one’s own a universal human striving, or something unique to certain people or societies?

These are the questions we don’t know the answer to until we compose them. And sometimes we don’t know what these questions are really about until we hear other people try to answer them. But one thing is for sure: our answers to such complex questions reflect much more than our knowledge of a set of facts – they show who we are and what we believe.

In a few months, I and two other teachers equally fascinated with the art of questioning will be presenting at a state conference on how to elicit more profound questions from students. We are reviewing Warren Berger’s inspiring A More Beautiful Question, which explores the importance of critical and active questioning in entrepreneurial and educational settings.

In the meantime, I am revisiting a realization I have had time and again as both student and teacher – that the deepest and most gratifying learning comes from moments of true confusion coupled with curiosity, moments when all we can do is ask question after question as we attempt to clarify what it is we really want to know.

After that, the hard work begins: looking for answers that we can verify, articulate, and live with.

Back To School

I’m feeling happier and happier every day this week. A warm feeling crept into my face on Monday, when two students stopped by my office to talk. After they left, I hustled to fill the purple plastic bowl on my desk with candy in case more of them appeared.

They aren’t due on campus until next Wednesday, but they are definitely in orbit. And it’s not that I’m lying in wait for them — that’s not it at all — I’m just excited they’re in view again, like planets that come into the night sky for a period of time and then, eventually and expectedly, vanish from sight.

People ask me often why I became an educator and I don’t think my answer has changed one time — the kids. I’m not unique in feeling this way, but I’m steadfast.

When I was a 23 year old teacher, and they were 16 and 17 years old, I didn’t really think of them as students. They weren’t friends, either. They were a part of my education, my training ground.

At some point along the way, as my identity as a teacher developed, I began to see them as individuals. Each time I sat down to plan a course or a project, I thought about each child’s potential response. I thought about my impact.

John Hattie writes in his powerful series, Visible Learning, that a key to success in education is for teachers to be able to imagine the experience of students.  I think another key is for teachers to take the students they encounter into their hearts, to think about them as distinct and brightly shining, if sometimes distant, and to design experiences for them that will bring them closer.

Remembering the Blessing of a Skinned Knee

IMG_5847

The endearing summer movie, Inside Out, was more impactful than I expected it to be. As I watched 11-year old RIley navigate adolescence with help from Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust, I was reminded about the importance of discomfort and struggle in achieving growth.

I have read and re-read the research, most prominently by Carol Dweck, showing that when children are praised constantly and often hollowly, they become both immune to the praise and also don’t develop coping mechanisms that build resilience, undermining  character development and growth. As a parent and teacher, these findings can be difficult to remember and faithfully follow. The bottom line is that watching and letting someone struggle with something can be unpleasant—even when we know it’s okay and, ultimately, for the best.

It often takes committed intention to keep ourselves in line with what the research tells us. For example, last week at the beach, my 7-year-old daughter barreled into the mudflats and sliced her toe on an oyster shell. Moments earlier, I had warned her that without shoes, she could get hurt, but she wanted to go for it anyway. I wanted to tell her she couldn’t. But instead, I let her.

She played happily for a full six minutes before she came wailing back to me, pointing to her bloody toe. I quickly assessed that it was only a small cut and told her we’d need to clean it up at home.The fifteen-minute walk home was pretty ordinary. I stayed completely calm and largely unhelpful. She talked and talked about the cut, but also pointed out birds and flowers on the route. She walked; I didn’t carry her and she didn’t asked to be carried. At home, we cleaned the wound together, applied antibiotic ointment, and wrapped her toe in an Ariel band-aid.

It was hard, in some ways, to keep myself from swooping her up, sharing her panic, and trying to lessen her discomfort. But in other ways, it was easy. I knew she’d be fine, and after we fixed her toe up, so did she. As Wendy Mogul, author of The Blessings of a Skinned Knee, wrote, “our job is to prepare our children for the road, not prepare the road for our children.”