Thursday, June 16, 2011

Losing the Stanley Cup: A Lesson for Teachers

Last night, the Vancouver Canucks lost the last game of the Stanley Cup finals to the Boston Bruins.  Following this devastating 4-0 loss, disappointed fans took to the streets of Vancouver and began rioting.  Usually I am not too excited by hockey or sports in general, but images of angry, drunken Canadians behaving badly were all over the news this morning, so I couldn’t help but notice.  In a casual conversation with my husband, I mentioned, “Boy, Vancouver took losing the Stanley Cup really hard, huh?”  An avid hockey fan, he told me that Canadians take their hockey very seriously and jokingly added, “There’ll be a public lynching of the coach later this afternoon.” 

At first, I wanted to respond to this statement with a flip, “Why? The coach didn’t lose the game.  The players did.”  But before I spoke these words out loud, I found myself thinking about the coach’s role and his responsibility to his team. In any type of sports match, players act and react to the heat of the moment.  Their decisions and moves reflect an immediate interpretation of the game.  A coach, watching from the sidelines, sees the game from a completely different perspective.  It is his responsibility to read and interpret what’s going on all over the field, or in this case, the ice. That information, coupled with the sum total of mental data he has collected about his team through countless practices and games throughout the season, saddles him with the responsibility of calling the shots. It’s up to him to think about what he knows about these players—their strengths and weaknesses and make the decisions that will affect a more favorable outcome. 

As I thought about the coach’s responsibility to his team, I found myself thinking about teachers in the classroom.  So often we want to blame students for their failings: they don’t pay attention, they don’t do their homework, they’re not trying hard enough, they misbehave. But as teachers, we have to look at our students as if they were these hockey players.  Vancouver has never won a Stanley Cup and to be that close to the top prize in hockey, you know they WANTED to win.  They WANTED to be successful. Perhaps they played badly, but they didn’t lose because they are bad players.

I suspect that Alain Vigneault, head coach of the Vancouver Canucks will spend his summer watching video replays of last night’s game over and over.  He is going to want to know what went wrong.  Why did his team fail?  What could he have done differently to help them capture the coveted prize? As a coach, he basks in the glory of winning but he also shares the pain of defeat. 
And as educators, so too, must we.

Our classrooms are spotted with students who are struggling but we need to remember that they are not failing because they are bad kids.  They WANT to be successful.  As teachers, it is up to us to assess and reassess the big picture and call the shots that lead to more favorable outcomes.   When students fail, we must share the pain of defeat and closely examine its cause. And when they succeed, we can bask in the intoxicating glory of success because after all, when it comes to learning, teachers and students are in the game together.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

A Smoothie at the Zoo

In Steven Johnson’s book Where Good Ideas Come From The Natural History of Innovation, (Amazon affiliate link) he tells the story of a nineteenth century French obstetrician, Stephane Tarnier, who noticed a chicken incubator on a visit to the Paris Zoo.  As he watched the chickens toddle around in the warmth of the device, he thought about the number of babies he delivered that had died.  Those babies had been born too soon and as he watched, he wondered if an incubator was the answer to this problem.  With the help of the local zookeeper, Tarnier set to work creating the first incubator for babies and as a result of this collaborative mindstorm, Tarnier succeeded at cutting the infant mortality rate at his hospital in half.  Incubators revolutionized maternity wards and are so successful at nurturing the life of premature babies that they are used to this day in hospital NICUs the world over.

Why am I telling you this story?  Well, this morning I happened upon a blog by Dr. Todd Kashdan at Psychology Today titled “Ways to Be Insanely Creative Dissecting the Worlds’ Greatest Maverick Scientist.”  With a title like that, who could resist? I was fascinated to learn about John Lilly but what really stuck with me was Kashdan’s commentary about what we can learn from Lilly’s life.   He wrote, “The quickest route to creativity is the blending of ideas from multiple topics and disciplines,” and it dawned on me: that’s exactly what happened when Dr. Tarnier went to the zoo. And it’s exactly what happened when Donald Graves started to think about how we teach children to become better writers.  Once upon a time, we “assigned” writing. It was a task that was completed in a minimal amount of time and handed in for a grade.  We lamented the poor spelling, lack of grammar, and overall quality of the writing, gave it a C, and handed it back.  Like Tarnier who was at odds with an uncomfortable reality, Graves walked into the proverbial zoo with this problem on his mind.  If kids are to be better writers, he reasoned, we need to look closer at the people who publish books. How do they do it? How can our classrooms mimic the process that authors use to produce successful writing? 

Kashdan calls this blending of ideas “intellectual smoothies.” I love smoothies and I can think of no better time for a “smoothie” than the summer.  Education is ripe with paradoxes and problems in need of creative solutions.  My question is this: what will you be mulling over on your trips to the zoo?