Category Archives: Habits of Mind

New Word, Forgotten Fact

A recent visit to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston yielded unexpected revelations, and rather late in the day, too.

Upon arrival at 10:15, my friend Laura, three of our children, and I launched into a three hour tour of master works in the collection. We stopped to discuss paintings by John Singleton Copley, John Singer Sargeant, Cezanne, Monet, Van Gogh.

I have been fortunate in my life to have seen work by these painters before. Looking at these paintings again, I found little new to say about or discover in them. But I was beyond happy to see our three children engaging with them, appreciating them.

They are high art — serious, important. Their creators studied painting for years and practiced their art over years of disciplined days. Our tour guide emphasized the fact that American painters at the beginning of the country’s history were essentially self-taught, and could not hold a candle to their European counterparts, at least at first. An interesting argument, and likely true, although Americans are nothing if not quick studies.

Meanwhile, downstairs at the museum, an exhibit of Haruki Marukami’s work is on display for a few months only. My daughter grew up on Howl’s Moving CastleSpirited AwayMy Friend Totoro — so before leaving the museum, we dashed downstairs to get a quick glimpse.

After so much seriousness, we were delighted to find bright colors and cartoon monsters displaying the entire spectrum of human expression on their faces. These fun images leaped beyond the bounds of their presumed frames to cover walls and floors.

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It was there that we learned the Japanese word, asobi, meaning playfulness. “The concept is central to the country’s creation myth, in which the Sun goddess Amaterasu, incensed at her impudent brother, sought solace in a cave, thereby plunging the world into darkness. Only the performance of a bawdy dance by another goddess, and the ensuing laughter, distracted her into reemerging and bringing light again into the world.”

The whole experience of being in the museum — first to appreciate the well-established masters, second to delight in an audacious newcomer — was a reminder that a balance between seriousness and playfulness is needed, and too often in my life anyhow, neglected.

Nothing reminds me of that more effectively than simply watching young children on their way out to recess at school. At the teacher’s signal, they leap outdoors, spilling gleefully beyond the bounds of their classrooms, to the open fields and playgrounds.

They have not forgotten the balance between seriousness and fun. We hope they never will. But in failing to show the ways in which we ourselves remember, we don’t always ensure that they won’t.

Goal Setting for Short and Long Term Gains

It is parent-teacher conference season in elementary and secondary schools. Although not everyone looks forward to this time in the school year, I love it and think it is one of the most important things we do in schools. We set aside an entire day to sit down to talk about student growth — not with ourselves as educators, but with parents and students themselves. We get to look at each other face to face and share feedback across the table.

I had the opportunity this past week to sit in on my first round of student-led conferences, a hallmark of many middle school advisory programs. To get students ready to lead a conversation about their work with their parents and teachers, we had them create goal boards. Each goal board had room for short term, long term, and ultimately SMART goals — measurable goals like “read one book outside of school each semester” that very often lead to goal achievement.

It was not easy for our students to come up with goals that were attainable in either the long or short term. Many said that they wanted to “get more sleep” or be “less distracted.” We helped them to think about how to get more sleep by getting homework done earlier, how to be less distracted in the age of distraction. In articulating how, they inched closer to making those dreams into realities.

In talking with students about goal setting, we used Jan Chappuis’ goals framework to direct them to think about learning goals rather than performance goals. Where performance goals focus on end results and grades, learning goals focus on growth and improvement. Learning goals answer the questions, “What do I need to do to get better?” “What can I learn from my mistakes?” These goals reflect a belief that persistence is necessary, as is failure. 

Chappuis offers educators and students a clear picture of what really matters when it comes to student achievement: optimism that comprehension can be built — and improved –over time, coupled with realism as to where things currently stand. One of the most challenging aspects of teaching and advising young people is that they are not yet adept at gauging their own performance. They can feel wildly overconfident or completely lacking in confidence in one or all classes, dependent upon perceptions that are not bound in facts.

I am convinced that the thing that helps students most to understand their own learning is simply working with them to think about it. Using prompts, visual aids, and examples, teachers and parents can really help students to feel better about where they are in their educational journey and in their lives.

Essential Emily & Marilynne

“Writing should always be exploratory,” writes Marilynne Robinson (Housekeeping, Gilead) in her NY Times essay, “Toward Essentials.”

“There shouldn’t be the assumption that you know ahead of time what you want to express. When you enter into the dance with language, you’ll begin to find that there’s something before, or behind, or more absolute than the thing you thought you wanted to express.”

I couldn’t agree with or love this idea more. One writes to understand, to deepen understanding, to discover. But, like “wrestling with an angel,” it isn’t easy. It takes discipline, curiosity, creativity, time.

It’s no surprise, then, that Robinson’s essay begins with a reference to Emily Dickinson, whose poetry is known for its rigorous compression of language and simultaneously sublime expansion of meaning.

Living in the 19th century with her family in Amherst, Dickinson stripped everything but what she felt was absolutely essential from her poetry, including conventions such as punctuation marks and proper nouns, while at the same time adding quirky signatures such as the dash and capital letters, additions that built layers of meaning into her sparse lines.

It is astonishing to think that, in the throes of inspiration, Dickinson jotted these poems on the flaps of envelopes and the backs of shopping lists found in the flotsam of her daily life (the “gorgeous nothings“).

Robinson cites Dickinson’s poem, “The Brain – is wider than the Sky.” I looked it up and reread it, having forgotten it. It’s just one of hundreds of astonishingly sly and intelligent poems that she wrote in her lifetime.

The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
For—put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease—and You—beside—

The Brain is deeper than the sea—
For—hold them—Blue to Blue—
The one the other will absorb—
As Sponges—Buckets—do—

The Brain is just the weight of God—
For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—
And they will differ—if they do—
As Syllable from Sound—

Comparing the brain to the sky, the sea, and to God, in well under 100 words, Dickinson makes a clever argument in which the human mind is greater than natural and divine wonders, while also dependent upon both. If the brain had nothing to contemplate, it would be as dull as the world around it. Syllables and sounds may differ, but they don’t exist without one another.

Did Dickinson set out to write a poem comparing humanity to skies, seas, Gods and sounds? Doubtful. But through writing, and wrestling, and dancing with words, she did.

Raising and Caring for our Little Adults

I loved Julie Lythcott-Haines’ How to Raise an Adult and had the good fortune to hear her speak last spring when she visited Charlotte. The book, like Julie herself, offers straight-talk to parents and teachers who take the responsibility of preparing future generations for whatever awaits them very seriously.

In a nutshell, she tells us to give our kids more space and time to become themselves without our constant interference. Sitting amid an audience of hundreds of parents, I couldn’t help but notice that there was not a person, including myself, who was not laughing and cringing all the way through her talk.

As a dean at Stanford, Lythcott-Haines saw first hand how easily thrown freshmen were in the face of any challenge. After being “overparented” — and therefore never having to do anything completely for themselves while also never feeling total independence or pride in the wake of their achievements — these high flying young people with high GPA’s were having a ton of trouble acclimating to college life. They were — are — suffering from acute anxiety, depression, and worse. Having accomplished their parents’ and often their own dreams, they were finding the reality to be both a bit underwhelming and somehow also overwhelming.

Frank Bruni’s editorial today, “The Real Campus Scourge,” adds an important layer to the discussion about how we are preparing young people for the places, situations, and demands they will confront. I read it just after talking with my niece, a newly minted college freshman who described finding it very hard, in these early days of freshman year, to eat regular meals, find people to connect with, even work out at the gym.

In his essay, Bruni hits the nail on the head: college, at least at first, is lonely. That college freshmen feel alone has nothing to do with the way they were parented or the fact that some may be like snowflakes that melt in the heat. Says Bruni, “In a survey of nearly 28,000 students on 51 campuses by the American College Health Association last year, more than 60 percent said that they had “felt very lonely” in the previous 12 months. Nearly 30 percent said that they had felt that way in the previous two weeks.”

Those numbers are pretty staggering, but what they really confirm is simply the fact that being alone is, for most of us, lonely. Also, people leaving home, if they are loved and lucky, miss home. Years ago this was true and it is still true today.

Tomorrow, I’m spending some of Labor Day collecting things for care packages for my five nieces and nephews who are currently in college. I wish I had the time and the funds to send one to each of my past students, too. This blog post will have to serve in the place of those hundreds of boxes full of symbolic hugs that I would send out tomorrow if I could.

It’s not easy to raise — or be — an adult. But it’s also not something any of us have to do all by ourselves.

Popular

In the popular musical, Wicked, the character Glinda takes Elphaba, otherwise known as the Wicked Witch of the West, under her wing. It’s grade school, and Glinda is the class pet. She’s pretty and talented, and everyone assumes she is also good. Elphaba, on the other hand, is bookish and solitary.

Glinda, with the intention to do a public service of sorts, decides to help Elphie make friends and be liked. She sings,

Popular! You’re gonna be popular! I’ll teach you the proper ploys when you talk to boys, little ways to flirt and flounce; I’ll show you what shoes to wear, how to fix your hair, everything that really counts to be popular! I’ll help you be popular! You’ll hang with the right cohorts, you’ll be good at sports, know the slang you’ve got to know…

I love this song and the way that Kristin Chenowith sings it. But as a parent and an educator, I have a love-hate relationship with the concept of popularity. Maybe that’s why, at the bookstore last week, I found myself drawn to a title I’d not heard of called Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status-Obsessed World by Mitch Prinstein, a psychology professor at UNC Chapel Hill.

The book just came out and is bound to be a bestseller. For who among us hasn’t grappled with the desire to be popular, or with popularity itself? In the book, Prinstein exposes both the immediate and long-lasting effects of popularity on each of us. His research indicates that our earliest experiences with our peers imprints on us and, over time, contributes to, if not shapes, our lives. Successes at work and the quality of our interpersonal relationships and self-image can be linked back to whether or not we were accepted or rejected by our peers as children.

Reading this book, I couldn’t help revisiting elementary school memories of being included at one minute, excluded the next by the popular kid on the playground. It was all so confusing — the being in and the being out. Then, in middle and high school, it got only more confusing as the opportunities to try on popularity presented themselves.

Despite depictions in books and films about popular kids who wreak havoc on the lives of others and often on their own lives as well, Prinstein points out that popular individuals can make a positive impact on others when they bring energy and creativity to the things they endorse. There is a difference between seeking popularity for the status it confers and being popular on the basis of one’s warmth, interest in others, and likability. 

Likability, Prinstein says, hinges on the positive way that we make others feel. Likability can’t be asserted and it can’t be bought. It can only be garnered through a geniune connection with other people. While there will always be those who seek popularity for the way it makes them feel, there will also be those who don’t seek it, and yet who are popular for the way they make others feel.

I really liked Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status-Obsessed World. And in liking it, I hope to help to make it popular.

Rambling Roses & Thoughts

Like my students and fellow educators, I have been on summer vacation this past week. I didn’t do much in terms of travel or learning. My goal was simply to listen and look more, and to try to speak less. I was doing so well with the goal that when I went to the post office to buy stamps, I had trouble asking for what I needed. The man behind the desk looked at me with a puzzled expression as I spoke too quickly and too quietly. I could see that I wasn’t being clear. But I couldn’t do better. My mouth was dry.

In addition to bungling a visit to a government office, I visited my parents at their summer house. My grandparents built the house in the 1970s; my parents renovated it in the 2000’s. But it’s the same house, the same place, no doubt about it. I know because when I fill a glass with water from the kitchen sink and look out the big picture window at the garden, I see the same scene I have seen every summer of my life. Scrubby pine trees waving in the wind. Butterflies at the bushes. Light on the day lilies. When I look down the driveway, I see the same rose bushes spilling over the gravel. I see my grandmother in the garden, where she liked to be in summer time. I see my grandfather, too. He’s reading the newspaper, like he always did. I hear his voice.

I see my sister Lisa, gone since 2009, coming up the driveway from an afternoon at the beach. I’m filled with happiness.

She’s there.

I’m here.

Sift, Sort, Spark, Joy

I am in the process of packing my family’s belongings as we prepare to move.

There is nothing particularly fun about sorting through fifteen years of accumulated objects and deciding what to give away. But according to Japanese cleaning consultant Marie Kondo, what I am doing is more magical than it feels.

Decluttering and organizing my house, she says, will transform my life. I don’t know if I believe her. But I’m intrigued. Kondo recommends a simple test to determine what we keep and what we discard — not just when we are moving, but all the time. Gather all of one kind of thing that you own (example, shirts). Pick each one up and hold it in your hands. Ask the question, does this shirt spark joy? If the answer is no, to the consignment store it goes.

Hers is a useful philosophy for living. Keep what makes you happy. Discard what doesn’t.

Although I don’t think this is easy to do at all, I’ve already begun to annoy my children by repeatedly asking them to consider whether the clutter in their rooms sparks joy in their hearts.

“Does that raggedy notebook with most of the pages scribbled on really spark joy?” (“Mom!” )

Staring down a pile of t-shirts this past weekend, I wondered, what would happen if we applied this same spark joy test to school? 

A trickier business, no doubt. School is stitched from many threads, few of which can be teased out, not to mention thrown out. However, in schools across the country — public, private, charter, parochial, home — questions about what students need and ideas about how to best serve those needs seem to be piling up. It sometimes feels hard to find the simple spark of joy amid the heaps of things to think about, things to try, things to do.

So while I’m not convinced that throwing away old socks will make me happier, I agree with Kondo that thinking about the things we hang on to and why is important in both school and life.

It’s not easy. But it is vital to keep the flame going.

Twice Told Stories

My nine year old daughter came home from school a few days ago and told me that she is writing an adaption. It took me a minute, but based on her description — “a story I already know, but different” — I realized she was talking about an adaptation. I was excited to hear her version of The Three Billy Goats Gruff. One of my favorite things in the world is a well-worn story in new clothes.

The new Beauty and the Beast is a great example of the way a retold story can gain resonance for one who already knows the story well. Whereas the animated film from the 1990’s is fun and heartwarming, the 2017 live-action movie gives viewers more to think about.

In this version, a real man is made into a beast as a result of his cold-heartedness, and a real woman restores his humanity through love. But it is the character of Gaston that really got my attention this go-around. Because he, too, is a real person and not a cartoon, his words and actions take on new dimensions in this latest iteration of the classic fairy tale. Played by the Welsh actor, Luke Evans, Gaston has the kind of eyes that crinkle at the edges in seeming sympathy and understanding. He wants Belle because she’s beautiful and smart. That, he says, “makes her the best.” He pursues her with a doggedness that mostly annoys and doesn’t intimidate, and for the first many minutes of the movie, I found myself rooting for the suitor I knew to be the real villain of the story.

But when Gaston assumes the mantle of Belle’s savior, won’t take no for an answer, and is determined to kill the competitor who won his girl’s heart, it is surprisingly jarring, not comical. At least, it was to me. Watching the movie with my daughters, ages 14 and 8, I couldn’t help wanting to say something about Gaston, about the way he was behaving toward Belle, her father, and the Beast.  I wanted to ask my girls if they thought Gaston was funny or scary. If they noticed that he was “beastly” despite how handsome he was. If they could discern where interest ends and obsession begins.

But I held my tongue. I didn’t want to break the movie’s spell. Instead I thought about the importance of story telling in its many forms and versions, in the experience of stories together, in and out of the classroom, today and every day.

Get On Board

I know I’m late to this party. People have been talking about Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad for months, and it just won the Pulitzer. Even my husband has read the book, and he rarely reads fiction. But better late than never. Whitehead’s sixth novel is now one of my all-time top ten, right up with there other masterpieces like The Handmaid’s Tale, Station Eleven, and 1984. 

This may be because The Underground Railroad explores so powerfully a misunderstanding I had as a child. It began with a set of playing cards my mother gave me one holiday featuring famous American women — Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Dolly Madison, and my favorite, Harriet Tubman.

Tubman, so plain in feature and dress, was a spy, an abolitionist, a champion of women’s and human rights. She looked different from the other women in the deck, and for reasons I didn’t understand, I loved her immediately. I imagined her running a station of the secret railroad coursing beneath the surface of the earth to carry slaves to freedom. I didn’t stop to think that the railroad wasn’t real.

In his book, Whitehead explores this fantasy of a magical railroad to freedom through the story of a runaway slave, Cora. After escaping her sadistic master in Georgia, Cora discovers a network of subterranean train tracks leading up from slavery and into various cities on the way to the free north. Each time she emerges from an underground station into a different southern state, she experiences a different racial dystopia with completely different laws and perils. But Cora is a quick study who will use whatever means necessary to survive.

She is Harriet Tubman; she is Anne Frank; she is Wonder Woman. She is everyone who ever ran from a bad life in search of a better one. She is one of the lucky few to make it all the way to freedom, all the way home.  And as she makes her way “into northness,” she learns that the railroad doesn’t depend on station masters or trains at all. It is one’s own creation, a figment of one’s imagination, made real by hope and perseverance and luck.

The Underground Railroad reveals the many tough truths and mysteries of American slavery. Run, don’t walk, to catch a ride on this novel.

Literary Guides

I loved Nicholas Noyes’ recent NYT article with pop-up illustrations, “How to Use a Novel as a Guidebook,”  in which he describes following Oliver Twist’s footsteps in London to see the city through Oliver’s eyes.

With help from a map of 1830s London, Noyes was able to connect as a 21st century reader/traveler with a place and a time long gone, Dickensian London. “Names of roads have changed. Rivers have been redirected underground and 180 years of development and decay have changed a landmark or two,” Noyes writes. “But Dickens’s description of Oliver’s entry into London is easy to follow. And following Oliver’s journey connects London’s 19th-century geography to the modern city.”

I was thinking about this topic — what literature is good for — in light of the winter edition of Independent School magazine, titled “What’s Happened to the Humanities?” It’s a question I think about often, as an English teacher facing students who may still love to read, but don’t feel they have the time or focus they need to immerse themselves in reading. It’s a question I think about from the perspective of an administrator heeding the call to provide more STE(A)M experiences for students, which can be hard to balance with traditional ways of assigning and assessing literary texts and understandings.

The good news is I’m not at all alone. I found a lot of wisdom in Janet Alsup’s article, “Literature in the Age of Google,” in which she writes that reading fiction is still very important for learners, and the reasons are more varied and nuanced than the potential connection between a 21st century traveler and 1830s London. “Identifying with characters in fiction is a complex, reciprocal experience that leads to increased empathy and engagement with texts,” she writes, which leads to “increase[d] inference-making abilities, empathizing with others, and valuing diversity.”

Reading literature helps us to forge powerful, if imaginary, connections between people and places and, magically, encourages real-world caring. Given that, Alsup’s question, “How do we encourage reading in an age of surfing,” is an apt one. Thankfully, she provides a number of good suggestions for teachers and parents alike: expose children to literature, read with them, give them choices, ask questions that move beyond plot summary, help them to make connections between what they read and what they see/experience, and don’t assume that they will emulate the people or stories they encounter in books. 

I’m about to bring my seniors on a journey back in time to Victorian England where a little girl named Jane Eyre is tormented by a cousin in a grand house and argues her way right into a chilly school for orphan girls. With Charlotte Bronte’s novel as our guide, we will make our way through the byways of the 19th century and arrive at key understandings about Jane’s world and our own, understandings we can best gain from literature.