I recently finished Daniel James Brown’s The Boys in the Boat. It’s the remarkable story of the 1936 U.S. Olympic rowing team made up of blue-collar boys from the University of Washington. I’m not a rower, but I gather within rowing circles they’re considered one of the world’s all-time greatest boats.
There’s a moment about two-thirds through the book that helps explain how this group, despite not being the strongest, tallest, or most technically sound, could compete against and beat the world’s best. It hinges on #2 seat Joe Rantz, a gifted, but inconsistent member of the team who can’t seem to find his rhythm. Legendary boat builder George Pocock pulls Joe aside before the spring season and insists that he has an opportunity to do things most would never have the chance to do, but to get there he has to trust the other boys in the boat.
“Joe, when you really start trusting those other boys, you will feel a power at work within you that is far beyond anything you’ve ever imagined.”
I’ve rolled that idea over in my head the past two days. Trust. It’s perhaps that simple — the greatest teams, organizations, dorms and classes thrive when and only when the members trust each other completely. We trust each other to do our part, but we also trust that we care when other members succeed, not just when we do.
I’ve seen this play out most recently with the III Form boys as they’ve come together with the help of dorm parents and advisors. During duty on Wednesday I watched how much fun they have together and, though they might not be ready to admit it, how much they care about each other. They did their jobs, played sardines, ate cookies and, as usual, found it difficult to go their separate ways at bedtime. It was a scene played out by generations of St. Andreans.
We’ll see the same this weekend with the winter play and again next weekend when students come together for Mock Trial and the winter musical. Look out for it around you and the next time you’re on campus. In it’s greatest form, it can be, as Pocock correctly asserted, beyond anything we imagine.
Hadley Roach ’07 shared a teacher evaluation rubric from North Star Academy in Newark, NJ, where she teaches. One of the categories is “Checking for Understanding and Responsiveness to Daily Student Learning.” The highest qualities (“Advanced”) for a teacher in this area of teaching are the following:
- Adeptly, efficiently and frequently uses a variety of checking for understanding techniques to constantly monitor student learning;
- Frequently and consistently uses higher order thinking questions to push student thinking;
- Unrelentingly focuses on student mastery of specific objectives.
Teachers at North Star who daily attain the “Advanced” level have developed a classroom culture where “95 – 100% of the students are engaged in the learning activity, and 85 – 90% of student hands are raised or students are ready to answer immediately when cold called.”
The questions and ideas that I’m thinking about from this challenging and worthy rubric, are:
1.) How can we check daily – in each class – for student engagement, knowledge, learning? How can we make sure that in each class we teach, 95-100% of our students are engaged, not just there, but learning, talking, questioning, re-thinking, doing, actively listening, ready to answer if called upon? Read more…
My 6-year old son’s piano teacher asked him yesterday what happens when he practices. “I get better,” he said without hesitation. I admit I’ve been a bit of a Tiger Mom with him since he started lessons, but there’s no denying the results. “Hot-Crossed Buns” gave way to “Old McDonald” in short order, and he’s set his sights on Yuja Wang by 2034. He is quick to point out that she started when she was 6-years old as well.
Harvey Johnson introduced me to Carol Dweck’s concept of a growth mindset several years ago. People with growth mindsets understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. Everyone can get better at anything if they work at it.
As we prepare to give our students exams for their work this fall, it might be helpful to us as teachers to think about how we are assessing our work as teachers. Here are some thoughts for all of us to consider:
- What questions should we ask ourselves about our teaching these first five months?
- How would we “grade” the responses?
- What’s the rubric against which we measure these responses?
- What changes have we made to our courses since September? Why? What are we now stressing based on how the classes have gone, or on our conversations with colleagues, or on our understanding of our students?
Over the years, I’ve collected many course evaluations. Here are some questions I’ve found that have helped me learn the most about my teaching and how much students are learning in my classes. Feel free to use any if you have not asked your students for a course evaluation: Read more…
As we start to write and create exams, let’s think about how to make these exams an authentic learning experience for the students, and for us. These assessments should reveal what the students have learned and how they think, write, speak, compute and work through new questions and fresh scenarios.
- Are there ways we can write an exam which embodies the highest goals of our teaching and our desire for student learning? (Conversely, what would an exam look like that doesn’t advance those goals and desires?)
- Can we formulate an exam which students will actually enjoy working through? That we will be inspired to read?
- Can we think of ways, in courses we teach together and within departments, where we can ask students common questions to assess their progress as a class and form?
- Can we make sure we create exams that don’t let them cheat because of the inventive nature of our questions? Can we write questions and problems that immediately appeal to their innate intellectual curiosity and desire to explore?
- What are the most essential questions we can ask that will accurately assess the core values, precepts and critical thinking skills of our course?
I hope we can all come up with exams that are intellectually challenging and become a part of the curriculum of our courses. In many ways, they should be the next class we teach.
We return in the season of epiphany, a time of long voyages, darkness, endurance, and the sudden manifestation of light. The story of the wise men setting off on their journey resonates with us as we make our way into the rigor and challenge of a new year. It is cold, dark, and foreboding outside, in T.S. Eliot ‘s words, “the very worst time for a journey.”
Epiphany reminds us of the power of endurance, resilience, faith, and perception. It reminds us that meaning, recognition come only though grueling challenges and moments of doubt, frustration, and despair. Epiphany suggests that if we surrender, sacrifice, and relinquish our daily needs, obsessions, and material objects, we will be honored by the sight and understanding of something profound, miraculous, and unexpected in our lives.
In his great story, “The Bear,” William Faulkner depicts the coming of age of Ike McCaslin as he travels into the wilderness for a sighting of a magnificent bear. His mentor, Sam Fathers, has taught him that to become a hunter and a man he must find his way literally and metaphorically in the wilderness. So Ike proceeds alone and after a long and futile pursuit realized he cannot see the animal until he has surrendered all the accouterments of his life.
One quiet moment stands out to me amidst the incredible performances, the community service, the Carol Shout, and the joy students shared with each other this week.
Near the end of the Polar Bear jump on Wednesday’s 28º morning, I heard Noah Rickolt ’14 quietly admit that this was one of the few times he didn’t want to jump. It was a surprising admission from the four-year member who serves as one of the club’s Papa Bears. Noah was the first one to the pond that morning and spent about 10 minutes clearing the ice chunks from around the dock. He knew exactly how cold the water was and, at this moment, wanted little part of it.
And then he did this:
He cannonballed away from the dock to the horror of those watching. We collectively gasped and my four-year old was at a loss for words for the first time in his life.
The barbaric yawp! required him to be in the water much longer than necessary, but my guess is that Noah wanted to send a clear message to his frontal lobe. How dare it try to scare him from doing something that makes him feel so alive? It was a moment of inspiration that I won’t soon forget.
Here’s to feeling alive this holiday season.