“Turning Lost Into Found”

Last month, I wrote about a former Trinity School student who is both a problem-finder and a problem-solver. An important piece of Trinity’s Sixth Grade Program is the Capstone Project which is the culminating project of students’ elementary school career. These projects have a specific goal: students must apply what they have learned through research and demonstrate understanding through a real-life application project which is independently designed. Students are encouraged to build, change, manipulate, operate, relate, or solve, and that’s just what Andrew Hennessy did with his “lost and found prototype.”

Andrew was selected to speak at the TEDxKIDS@BC event which takes place on September 17, 2011. His talk, “Turning Lost Into Found” will be livestreamed at some point between 2:00 PM and 2:30 PM (EDT) during the “playing for life” strand. You can watch it here on Saturday. The biography Andrew submitted for this event beautifully illustrates something Jenifer Fox writes about in her book, Your Child’s Strengths. Fox writes that “over a lifetime, children encounter a variety of symbolic systems across a wide range of disciplines and their minds develop all sorts of ways to absorb, make sense of, and interact with these systems. This is what learning is.” As I reflect on Andrew’s biography, I see that he so freely expresses his passions and interests…it’s clear that he understands those systems –both symbolic and real — which he faces as a young adolescent and learner. According to Andrew’s bio, he “is a curious 12-year-old finding ways tackle everyday challenges using technology.”

“My name is Andrew Hennessy. I just turned 13 and I love using technology to solve problems. I am fascinated with robotics and mechanical devices. My older brother and I argue over who gets to see the latest issue of Popular Science first. ‘Mythbusters’ and ‘How Stuff Works’ dominate the DVR recordings at home and I am always thinking of new projects to create out of Make Magazine. While I take school seriously, I also play soccer and roller hockey and run cross country. I love cooking with my Mom and playing golf with my Dad.”

The “First Day”

August 17th marks the first full day of school for all Trinity students. As I walked through the halls late this afternoon, I passed many doors with the lights still on…countless teachers putting the finishing touches on the classrooms, making sure their rooms were most welcoming to the elementary students who arrive before eight o’clock in the morning. Of course, the names on the cubbies, the bright bulletin boards, and the organized reading corner make the classroom feel like an exciting and comforting place. These things are so important. More important than the things, however, are the words and actions of the teacher and those of the students during those first minutes and hours of the school day. At Trinity, we spend the first days of school focusing on strengths chasing and what a difference this makes. What a difference those the first few hours make. What a difference those first few days make.

Ultimately, it’s about relationships…and those first days are invaluable.

At Trinity, we ask all teachers to reach out to their students before the beginning of school. Most teachers write letters or postcards and many students respond by sending pictures and notes in return. In essence, so many of our teachers begin building relationships with their students and embarking on strengths chasing  before those first days.

One of Trinity’s fifth grade teachers, Meredith Burris, did an interesting thing. She included the link to her blog in her (snail-mail) letter to her students. Meredith is an avid reader and plans to post on her blog, “Burris’s Blog for Bibliophiles: A Blog for Book Lovers and Becoming Book Lovers,” throughout the year. Her first post of this school year chronicled her summer reading life and invited readers to share highlights of theirs. The following sentences illustrate how passionate she is about reading, her strengths of writing and reflection, and (of course!) her love of the long days of summer:

I, too, love summer, but I look forward to it for a very different reason. I love summer because I can read – as long and as much as I want, whatever I want, wherever I want, and whenever I want. I love having the freedom to read all day long, if I so choose. I find myself getting up earlier and reading while I eat breakfast, or staying up l late until the early hours of the morning. There’s nothing better than finding a book that’s impossible to put down and having the luxury of not having to do so!

Even though Meredith’s post is powerful, I’m struck by the 20 (and counting!) comments which follow her post. Donovan responds to his teacher’s post almost immediately (on August 2nd…well before the first day of school)  and not only addresses his teacher’s love of summer but also acknowledges the number of books she read and added a few from his own list:

I like summer too Mrs. Burris. I like summer because it makes my schedule more open. Just like you I like to read all night because there is no school in the morning. It is so cool that you read 30 books in this one summer. This summer I read a Rick Riordon book called ” The Throne of Fire”. I am also reading the Hatchet series by Gary Paulson. I am in the middle of a book called “I Am Number Four”. I can’t wait for the school year to start, enjoy the rest of your summer.

If you scroll through all of the comments, you’ll see a beautiful thing. You’ll see relationships being formed around a common topic. You’ll see our Head of School commenting as well as a Trinity staff member and an administrator. If you keep scrolling down, you’ll come across a parent’s comment (a few comments below that of his daughter). Of course, the children’s comments are powerful. That’s a given. They are writing because they care. They are writing to connect. And they are writing to begin to form those relationships that will make their fifth grade year even more rich. Interestingly, I suspect that the adults who contributed are doing the same thing. They are writing because they care enough to connect. To connect with kids, with Meredith the teacher, with the topic, and in essence, with something that’s much larger than themselves.

From the fifth grader to the Head of Trinity School, the “first day of school in Mrs. Burris’s Fifth Grade Class” happened long before August 17th. Those first few real-live hours and those first few real-live days will still be invaluable. But what I know, and what I suspect that Meredith, Donovan, Kate, Allie, Annie, Ginny, Mrs. Berry, Emily, William, Mr. Pulver, Mr. Kennedy, Ellie, Wyatt, Isabella, Josh, Isabel and Eva know, is that August 17th is going to be a special day…and it’s not only because it’s the “first day.”


Unlocking Unique Potential

As I reflect on the administrative work I do at Trinity, I realize how clear and potent the mission statement of my school actually is.  Yes, many statements of mission/vision sound similar (especially at independent schools) and from the outside, one may think that the Trinity School Mission Statement is like many others. However, I work on a team with members who actively screen each decision they make with the School’s statement of purpose. It’s an incredible model for me and for all of the members of our community.

As I formulate my goals for the 2011-12 school year, I am reminded how two major initiatives of which I am a part (World Languages and the Personal Learning Portfolio) require that our statement of mission is clear, potent, and alive. In fact, my Head of School often states that he is driven, inspired, and obsessed with Trinity’s Mission Statement. As I think of the work I do, the following twelve words especially resonate:

unique potential

responsible, productive, and compassionate member of the expanding global community

Trinity’s Mission Statement (in full) is below:

“The Mission of Trinity School is to create a community of learners in which each child can acquire the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to achieve his or her unique potential and become a responsible, productive, and compassionate member of the expanding global community.”

I just finished a very full morning with all of the new faculty and staff at Trinity. As I listened to members of Trinity’s Academic Leadership Team speak about the School, I was reminded of Matt Damon’s speech at last weekend’s SOS March and National Call to Action. The text of his speech is below (to see the video of his speech, click here), but the word that kept coming to my mind this morning (and a word that Damon references during his speech) is the word empower.

As another school year begins, I realize how blessed I am to feel empowered in the job that I do.  Not all educators (and certainly not all administrators) feel empowered (and that is the crux of Damon’s speech) by the work that they do or, generally, by the vision/mission/direction of their school or school system.

What do I know for sure?

I know that as I embark on a new year, I know (for sure) that I am blessed to work in a school where “unlocking unique potential” is the status quo. I am blessed to work in a school with a leader who is known to operate and make decisions based on a mission which is a driving (both inspirational and obsessive) force in his daily work. I am blessed to be a part of a team which can so clearly and succinctly explain to a new group of faculty and staff that unlocking unique potential is why we are here. We must make Trinity’s Mission Statement come alive…we must be empowered and we must empower others.  It’s a big task.  And it’s about time to begin anew…


I flew overnight from Vancouver to be with you today. I landed in New York a few hours ago and caught a flight down here because I needed to tell you all in person that I think you’re awesome.

I was raised by a teacher. My mother is a professor of early childhood education. And from the time I went to kindergarten through my senior year in high school, I went to public schools. I wouldn’t trade that education and experience for anything.

I had incredible teachers. As I look at my life today, the things I value most about myself: my imagination, my love of acting, my passion for writing, my love of learning, my curiosity all come from how I was parented and taught.

And none of these qualities that I’ve just mentioned, none of these qualities that I prize so deeply, that have brought me so much joy, that have brought me so much professional success, none of these qualities that make me who I am…can be tested.

I said before that I had incredible teachers. And that’s true. But it’s more than that. My teachers were EMPOWERED to teach me. Their time wasn’t taken up with a bunch of test prep…this silly drill and kill nonsense that any serious person knows doesn’t promote real learning. No, my teachers were free to approach me and every other kid in that classroom like an individual puzzle. They took so much care in figuring out who we were and how to best make the lessons resonate with each of us. They were empowered to unlock our potential. They were allowed to be teachers.

Now don’t get me wrong. I did have a brush with standardized tests at one point. I remember because my mom went to the principal’s office and said, My kid aint taking that. It’s stupid, it won’t tell you anything and it’ll just make him nervous. That was in the 70s when you could talk like that.

I shudder to think that these tests are being used today to control where funding goes.

I don’t know where I would be today if my teachers’ job security was based on how I performed on some standardized test. If their very survival as teachers was based on whether I actually fell in love with the process of learning but rather if I could fill in the right bubble on a test. If they had to spend most of their time desperately drilling us and less time encouraging creativity and original ideas; less time knowing who we were, seeing our strengths and helping us realize our talents.

I honestly don’t know where I’d be today if that was the type of education I had. I sure as hell wouldn’t be here. I do know that.

This has been a horrible decade for teachers. I can’t imagine how demoralized you must feel. But I came here today to deliver an important message to you: As I get older, I appreciate more and more the teachers that I had growing up. And I’m not alone. There are millions of people just like me.

So the next time you’re feeling down, or exhausted, or unappreciated, or at the end of your rope; the next time you turn on the TV and see yourself called overpaid; the next time you encounter some simple-minded, punitive policy that’s been driven into your life by some corporate reformer who has literally never taught anyone anything. … Please know that there are millions of us behind you. You have an army of regular people standing right behind you, and our appreciation for what you do is so deeply felt. We love you, we thank you and we will always have your back.

Opening Doors

Garner Flowers Trees

“Megan, you can be you. It’s okay.”

I probably don’t remember the first time I heard those words. But I do remember the first time I remember hearing those words. I had just arrived home from ballet practice and was with my father, wearing a pink tutu and soccer cleats, practicing kicking a football through imaginary goal posts in the front yard of my childhood home. At some point mid-practice, a few neighborhood friends passed by on their bikes and I immediately felt self-conscious. My father, who undoubtedly recognized my discomfort, uttered those words and not only reassured me that it was okay, but in those seven simple words, he carefully honored my strengths, my passions, and my uniqueness.

Yesterday, I was reminded of this moment, a distant memory buried deep within the vast amount of childhood memories, while reading Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone. In what I suspect is a major turning point in Verghese’s novel, the narrator (Marion) gives voice to an important moment in his childhood — a moment which was certainly formative in terms of his strengths, his passions, and his uniqueness.

Looking back I realize Ghosh saved me when he called me to feel Demisse’s pulse. My mother was dead, and my father a ghost; increasingly I felt disconnected from Shiva and Helma, and guilty for feeling that way. Ghosh, in giving me the stethoscope, was saying, “Marion, you can be you. It’s okay.” He invited me to a world that wasn’t secret, but it was well hidden. You needed a guide. You had to know what to look for, but also how to look. You had to exert yourself to see this world. But if you did, if you had that kind of curiosity, if you had an innate interest in the welfare of your fellow human beings, and if you went through that open door, a strange thing happened: you left your petty troubles on the threshold. It could be addictive.

As educators, what can we learn from Marion’s words in Cutting for Stone?

First,  we must be able to convey to students that “you can be you…it’s okay.” Even though I am on vacation, I have loved reading the tweets and blog posts coming from Klingenstein’s Summer Institute for Early Career Teachers (#klingsi11). From the blog of Peyten Dobbs (@epdobbs), Superfluous Thoughts, you’d never guess that she was an early career teacher. In a recent post about honoring the uniqueness of every individual, she writes:

Irrespective of what I or others feel about homosexuality, gay marriage, or LGBT in general, the guiding principal of teaching is that I must validate all of my students. I must foster a safe place for them to learn in my classroom and in my school. This is true whether they are LGBT, straight, black, white, asian, female, male, atheist or religious, rich or poor.  My job is to help students foster their own identities, to know that they are respected, and to learn to respect others. (you can read the full post here)

Her post and tweets related to this issue caught the attention of a student from her school (who is also on summer vacation), who responded with a powerful comment conveyed in (impressively!) less than 140 characters:

Love Learning Tweet

It is essential that we establish an ethic of care in schools. Nel Noddings conveys in a bit more detail what @TaraWestminster’s tweet suggested. Noddings writes, “As we build an ethic on caring and as we examine education under its guidance, we shall see that the greatest obligation of educators, inside and outside formal schooling, is to nurture the ethical ideals of those with whom they come in contact.”

As educators, I firmly believe that we must provide the time and space to convey to students that “you can be you…it’s okay.”

A second takeaway from Marion’s words in Cutting for Stone is that we, as educators, must create a culture within our schools which honors transparency and collaboration in the learning process. We must be models. And we must recognize that for some (both adults and children), the need/importance for transparency and collaboration is not always so evident. After Marion is given the stethoscope, he remarks that Ghosh “invited me to a world that wasn’t secret, but it was well hidden. You needed a guide. You had to know what to look for, but also how to look. You had to exert yourself to see this world.” In my personal growth as a learner over the past two years, I have seen first-hand that the tools for learning are abundant (and those tools can be as technological as Twitter or as basic as those face-to-face conversations with friends and colleagues). Sometimes introduction to the tool is sufficient for furthering my learning. Sometimes I need more than an introduction. Sometimes I need an attentive and well-versed guide to take me through various steps of the learning process.

For Marion, the tool was the stethoscope. Ghosh was the guide who was willing to open the door to further learning opportunities (and for Marion, those learning opportunities were addictive). Certainly, both (the tools and the guiding process) are important, but we must always keep in mind the balance that Gardner references in the image at the top of this post. If it is true that “much of education today is monumentally ineffective.” And that “all too often we are giving young people cut flowers when we should be teaching them to grow their own plants.” Then how do we, as educators, strike a healthy balance?

For the adult learners, I believe that the first step is that we need to be as transparent and collaborative as we possibly can. Then, we need to inspire the learners in our care. I love what my @PrototypeCamp friends have to say:

learning advocates

First, let us open the door to allow students to understand that “it’s okay…you can be you.” Then, let us help them embrace learning (because their life does depend on it) by helping them become their own unapologetic learning advocates who will ultimately open doors for others and become addicted to opportunities for learning even if the absence of the tool or the guide.