Tuesday, January 12, 2016

What is Risky?

photo courtesy morguefile.com
Randomness abounds, this time of year.  There are two - count them - two, days left before final exams begin.   I love this time of year, despite the constant revisions to the piles of research papers, the pleas for "just one more chance" to do some extra credit to boost that grade, and the endless game of cat-pursuing-mouse I am playing with students who owe me work.  

Why do I chase them?  Because it's easier than filling out the paperwork for an Incomplete on the report card.  If I catch them now, it's all over next week.  If I don't, well, chances are darned good that next semester's class will have a familiar face staring at me for another 90 days, repeating the course.

The love isn't for the thrill of the hunt, it's for the thrill of the presentations.   The Themes in Literature classes have dug out their Inquiry Questions just one more time to dig deep for their group presentations.  It was during that time today that Taylor said that she was still waiting.

For what?

The answer to a blog post from December, 2014.   

What is risky?

adjective: risky; comparative adjective: riskier; superlative adjective: riskiest
full of the possibility of danger, failure, or loss.
"it was much too risky to try to disarm him"
synonyms:dangerous, hazardous, perilous, high-risk, fraught with danger, unsafe, insecure, precarious, touch-and-go, treacherous, parlous

Thanks, Google, for the definition.  

Risky is not a thing in my classroom.  (Which stands to reason, what with it being an adjective, according to Google.  Yet gifted kids seem to fear risk more than the soulless eyes of zombies chasing them.)  In fact, risky is the exact opposite of anything.  Risky is NOTHING.  

Yes, I'm talking in circles, and yes, I'm still squinting at my computer screen as a victim of Post Concussion Syndrome, having overdosed on my alotted screen time for today.  Risky is something that I dwell upon, think about, and bemuse much more than I should.  To me, Risky is the very idea of any of my students failing to face danger, failure or loss, because they are too afraid to try.  

What causes kids, particularly gifted kids, to fail to try?  Well, heck, most of the time it has something to do with those ROUND SHAPED grades.  You know, Bs, Cs, Ds.  The fear of a grade that doesn't look like the side of a 60s swingset, complete with crossbar.  (You know what I mean -- we all hung upside down by our knees from that bar, or teased someone who did, with a rhyme about London, France, and underpants.)

Tomorrow the TDO Presentations begin.  Talent Development Opportunities are all about risk.  There's no target, no rubric.  The only promise is the guarantee of a 95%, regardless of the success of the project.  In fact, the only way to NOT do well on TDOs in my class is to turn in reflection papers (due 3 x a semester) late.  Those reflections are only scored for their reflective quality, and not the success or failure of the project.

So, Taylor, and the rest of my TDO Creators, What is risky?

Absolutely nothing.  No chance of danger, failure or loss.  You're all winners in my book.  Move forward, bare your souls, share your accomplishments, and admit to your failures.  And realize that every single thing you did, that mattered as you did it, has value to you.  Find it, recognize it, embrace it.  Learn from it, move forward, carrying that learning in your pocket.  Motivate your classmates with your stories, inspire your teacher to draw on another page in her barebook, and start thinking about what happens in two short weeks, when the 2nd semester begins.

Because if you think you faced risk this semester, just wait!

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Climb Every Mountain.

I can't tell you off the top of my head exactly how many letters of recommendation I've written in seventeen years of teaching.  Between letters to colleges, potential employers, scholarship committees, and elite summer programs, I have amassed quite a collection of letters in my "Recommendations" file, and frequently scan the list of previous students, trying to find another of similar character or stature.   Most of the time, when writing recommendation letters, the recipient is entirely unfamiliar with the candidate, and it is up to the recommender (aka me) to introduce my exceptional student to them.

The same can not be said for letters headed to the pinnacle of Scouting achievement.  Climbing Eagle Mountain, to the rank of Eagle Scout, is a journey that truly begins with a single step.  Beginning as a tiny Tiger Cub, the mottoes are rehearsed, the derbies are run, the character is built -- all the while, the scoutmasters view each and every step, watching the refinement of the young man, and his character.  As a teacher, writing a letter of recommendation TO the scouts ABOUT a student hoping to achieve the highest rank, is particularly difficult -- honestly, what can I say about this fine young man that THEY don't already know?  Regardless of the challenge, writing the letter is both a privilege and an honor.  It also offers time to pause and reflect on the young man that that tiny boy, that I've known for years, has become.  

Today, I attended the Eagle Scout Ceremony for James. 

I first laid eyes on James at the Pennsylvania Association for Gifted Education conference.  He was four years old, half asleep in an umbrella stroller, after a day at the Philadelphia Zoo with his father.  His mother and brother were attending the conference, and this tiny blonde boy was introduced to me, barely able to keep his eyes open, let alone make eye contact or shake my hand.  "He'll be in your class soon!" I was told.  

And in short time he was.  mastering tasks, skipping grades, taking high school classes, while other kids his age were sitting in elementary school classrooms.   His interests are far-reaching, and so are his accomplishments.  He's a master musician, a scout, an historian who has gone to Nationals in National History Day competition.  He's spent 66 nights camping with the scouts, and earned several dozen merit badges.  And you know what the highlight of the ceremony for me was?

Seeing James admit to, and share, an unfinished, highly mangled, handwoven basket.

Climb Every Mountain.

Go ahead, cue the music from Sound of Music in your head.  (More than a few of us in attendance were subconsciously humming it, given the many references to the "path up Eagle Mountain." )   The journey to greatness -- any greatness -- is a single step.  (yada, yada, yada...)  And the other thing about that journey, which is rarely shown or discussed, is the unfinished, highly mangled, handwoven basket.  Those who know me well know that I am desperately trying to create an acronym out of UHMHWB that can serve as a grand motivational tool for others -- but even I know that won't catch on.  Still, I applaud James for sharing a failure in the midst of his celebration of achievement.
My friend, Seth, the author of Khembond's Corner, recently waxed poetic on this very topic:

"I hate to tell them, but failure is always an option and sometimes even a desired outcome. It builds resilience, a trait that is missing in the next generation. It builds grit. It educates us, if we allow it too. It provides necessary feedback. If we are honest we should be asking to push ourselves to the failing point just to make ourselves better."

I've spent most of my break reading Little Bets:  How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries, by Peter Sims.  Seeing James' basket today, served as a reminder to me of the importance of admitting to, and embracing, failure.  Sims' book illustrates the importance of this as well, in its study of some pretty powerful failures that motivated success for Steve Jobs, comedian Chris Rock, architect Frank Gehry, and the teams at Pixar.  The embracing of failure by each of these heavyweights has led to an entire study of the power of failure.

So James, congratulations on attaining the rank of Eagle Scout.  More importantly, congratulations on failing at basket-weaving -- and admitting it.  Don't throw away that basket.  Peter Sims may be writing about you in the next few years, and need pictures for his next book.  Meanwhile, enjoy the view from the top of Eagle Mountain.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Happy New Year: Resolutions and Inspirations!

"One of the advantages of being disorganized is that one is always having surprising discoveries."  - Winnie the Pooh.

Shortly after midnight, I awoke to the wonders of 2016.  I've never been a big New Year's Eve celebrator, and last night was no exception, so a bedtime before midnight shouldn't come as a surprise to those who know me well.  The concussion confusion continues, particularly when I'm surrounded by combinations of music and multiple conversations, so I opted out of the gracious invitations to celebrate with friends.  

I spent the evening cleaning and organizing my sewing space, discovering all sorts of projects - some started, some merely stacks of patterns and fabric, waiting to be made.  I emptied the closet, and baskets, and boxes, and, well, all sorts of containers, working my hardest to make sense out of what I'd stashed away at some previous time. Maybe 2016 will be the year where I finally know where everything has a place, and I remember where that place actually is.  For during the purge, I found not only Bruce's birthday present, but the elusive Claude Girioux ornament for Kristin that has been MIA since Christmas 2014.  

There's nothing like a brain injury to force one into organizing for the sake of sanity.  Suffice it to say, there are now piles for donation, piles that have been bagged and hauled out to the trash, and a significant pile of things to go to school on Monday.  

Yes, school.

Resolutions and Inspirations...

About a week ago, I discovered the Teacher Resolutions from the folks at thepensivesloth.com.  A number of the resolutions resonated with me -- particularly #4 - I will resist the urge to shove things into drawers and cabinets, because doing so is not the same as "organizing" my classroom."

I gotta say, in my own defense, that sometimes this allegedly bad habit can lead to some amazing inspiration.  It's easy, halfway through the year, to look at the second semester as that old line, "2nd verse, same as the first," and simply change the dates on the lesson plans from the first semester, reteaching the same lessons in the same old way.  Much like the excitement of unwrapping Christmas gifts on the 25th of December, I've discovered new inspiration in the stashes in my sewing room -- and am actually looking forward to digging through some cabinets at school to see what surprises await.  

I'm excited to return to school full time on Monday, for the first time since September.  I've got that Labor Day feeling - sketching out the future, and refining the past, which is an unusual feeling to have in the dead of winter.  I've never been the countdown person (see Resolution #12), but it's mostly because I 1)LOVE MY JOB, and 2) am not organized or mathematical enough to keep accurate count.

So January begins, and my heart is just a bit more excited about getting back to the classroom.  For there is only one thing for teachers that is more exciting than the infinite possibilities of teaching every single day - and that would be the giddy anticipation of the winter right of passage - a 2 hour delay, when we breathe, seek further inspiration on Pintrest, and clean out a few closets or drawers in search of more things to box up and take to school.  After all, the classroom is truly my second home.

Happy New Year!  May 2016 be the year or taking risks, daring to fail, and wondering about limitless possibilities.