Set Students Up For Failure?

I’m fascinated by our opportunity to teach our students about failure, its impact, and their ability to overcome their own failures. I know I would have benefited from this instruction as a high school student, so it’s often on my mind as I work through each week on campus.

I’m always looking for something that can help facilitate that conversation about failure well, and it was in pursuit of some new inspiration that I stumbled up on this video recently by a few graduate students at Harvard. I was fascinated by it. It’s pushed me to reconsider a number of assumptions I made (or wonder if I made), and in the best way possible, it’s left me with a few ideas I can’t shake.

There’s a lot there in this video, but more than anything, I’m stuck replaying this line from professor Heather Hill. When talking about the role that risk and failure play in our learning, she comments that, “Teachers who are crafty start to design instruction that kind of responds to that [the impending stumble] ahead of time and highlights it and brings it up, so that kids will make that mistake; it’s called provoking the stumble.”

PROVOKING THE STUMBLE

That phrase, “provoking the stumble,” I love that.

But here’s where I’m stuck: how do we balance the idea of provoking stumbles with the idea of individualizing to help students be successful? Outside of a “you have to know your students” answer, how do we give guidance to those teachers who do know their students well and still struggle to answer this question well?

The way I see it, if we know that students benefit from overcoming challenges, we know that grit is developed in that zone of just right stretch, how can we not begin to invest ourselves in provoking stumbles for our students?

If we’re going to go down this road (and I do think we need to start down this road–or maybe start blazing a new trail in this direction), we have to be prepared with more than a shoot from the him response to parents who, understandably, will question why we are doing this. From one vantage point over a shortened time frame, we are setting students up for failure. But given a longer view, we’re preparing students to know that they can recuperate from failure and overcome adversity.

WE NEED TO FIRST BE LIMITED IN ORDER TO BECOME LIMITLESS

Part of overcoming our struggles (I won’t put all this on you, but I imagine some will identify with this) my struggles is a healthy, painful realization that I can’t do everything I would like. This isn’t an exclusively academic or professional realization by any means. I wish I could run like I could when I ran cross country in high school. I wish I could stay up (to write this blog, even) late at night without feeling it the next day (or two or three). The reality is that I have limits.

New ones seem to show up each day.

I came across Phil Hansen’s TED talk around the same time I say the “What Makes Good Teaching?” short, and I think Hansen is leading me toward my answer. You see, Hansen is an artist who (spoiler alert) can’t draw a straight line.

Given the choice to simply give up on being an artist, he chooses to overcome a considerable limitation and “Embrace the Shake” so that he can continue to develop his creativity and pursue his calling as an artist. That’s all I’ll summarize; take a few minutes to take in his message here:

WHAT NEXT?

I need your help. How do you balance this dichotomy: helping students experience success v. helping students learn to overcome failure? I’d love to hear examples of how you balance both well. The ways that you “set your students up for failure” (which, when done in this spirit, of course, is setting them up for long term success) will help me help teachers, and they will help me think through the parallels for professional development in our school and district.

Please do share. I truly appreciate any feedback you have. Together, we can come up with some great ways to challenge and support students through failure toward success!

Perspective

choiceWhen I was in the classroom, I loved working through the first big ideas at the beginning of the year with my English III AP students. They would often enter they year ready to teach me a few things about English (since, you know, much like their 16 year old peers in high schools across America, they had things figured out pretty well). I hope that I’m pretty open about learning things (and I did learn a great deal from them), but I loved how we would stretch them at the start the year.

For many of my students, most of their work in school pushed them to either/or answers. There’s some good in being able to carefully trace a line of thought through a singular path, but we started disrupting this early in the fall. These students hadn’t often been exposed to questions with multiple correct answers, and I remember my students being really torn when we got to the point where there were multiple answers that were right to some of the questions we asked in class.

Is the way the community treats Hester’s failure to follow the rules fair?

In what way can a work of fiction be true?

Is technology more beneficial or detrimental to our society?

I would use an example in class that I’m sure I saw somewhere, but can’t recall when. I’d ask a student for a piece of paper, roll it up into a cylinder, and then position it so that from one student’s angle, it looked like a rectangle and from another student’s vantage point, it looked like a circle.

Like this:

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When the first person looked at it and decided he saw a rectangle, he’s made an informed decision (from one perspective). He’s not likely to imagine that what he was looking at was actually a cylinder. From the second person’s perspective, he sees a circle instead of a cylinder. Here’s what I mean:

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This sort of reaction is not unique to my high school juniors. You might not have this problem, but I do. If I’m not careful, when I see something, I’m prone to believe that I’m seeing it the right way. People everywhere are susceptible to this misinterpretation, and the only way I can seem to find to work around it is to make a habit of looking at things from multiple perspectives. The problem is, this ends up pointing out where I’m short sighted and flat out wrong. I don’t like that.

So, what does that mean for us as educators?

I wonder what questions we feel have to be answered with yes or no. If you’re anything like me, I like a sure thing. I like risk, but I like risk most when it works out. Surely I’m not alone in this, right? I need this reminder that there’s often another way, one that’s not my way, but one that will work just fine (or be even better than mine). If I’m not careful, I’ll start to equate my way with the way. At best, this is a nuisance to others. At worst, it stifles creativity, drowns ideas, and belittles those who might look for additional solutions. Obviously, that’s never going to be alright.

It’s always been much easier for me to find places where I feel others need some extra perspective. Here’s my challenge (for myself as much as for anyone else): For every issue you can think of that you feel others need to gain extra perspective, think of an issue where you need to do the same.

What are you so sure about that you haven’t reevaluated in years? I don’t have answers to these questions for myself yet, but I’m beginning to mull over what issues I face need to be rethought with a different perspective.

Who’s with me?

Do We Need A New Model?

This is Graham (my oldest). He’ll be four this fall, and in this video, he’s doing something I never would have imagined was possible–learning to ride a bike with no training wheels.

If you have kids, you’re likely no stranger to this wonderful invention. But if you’re not, what he’s riding is called a balance bike. It’s really an interesting idea for helping kids learn to ride bikes.

The old standard, training wheels, is based on the idea that kids need to learn to pedal before they learn to balance. When the wheels come off, the trick is to pick up the new skill of balancing on your bike.

With a balance bike, the end goal is still the same: give kids who can’t ride a bike a way to exercise and learn the sills they’ll need to ride a bike one day. The thing I like about the balance bike is that kids seem to be picking up the tougher skill (balancing) first. At first, Graham struggled with it, but he really did pick it up quickly (and from what I hear, his experience is pretty typical).

Before I knew about balance bikes, I would have thought a bike with training wheels was the only viable option for helping Graham learn to ride. It was the right scaffolding he would need to teach him to pedal, and then I’d run down the street behind him when we took the wheels off, much like my dad did for me, to help him learn to balance. But because someone rethought what it actually takes to learn to ride a bike, he was able to learn, and learn faster (and I’m not sweating in the Texas sun running behind him, so that’s good, too).

When you develop a relationship, it (3)

Seeing this made me wonder if there are models that we’re holding too tightly to in education. This isn’t a post where I’m going to nail down one issue that we just have to change, but there are a lot of things we hold to really strongly that might be worth rethinking.

Maybe it’s grades that should be rethought. There is a lot of conversation out there on the ways we should rethink accepted practices with regard to student feedback.

Maybe it’s your bell schedule. Is it serving students well or teachers well?

Maybe it’s the way you schedule students. Who gets first priority–student needs or teacher preferences?

Maybe it’s the way you welcome new people to your building or into teams.

Maybe it’s the in the assumptions we make about student behavior.

Maybe it’s an element of campus culture that’s fine now, but shows room for improvement.

Maybe it’s about offering PD credit to individual teachers for time spent learning online.

Whatever it is, it’s going to be unique to each campus, but we have to be careful not to dismiss needs that should be addressed because that’s convenient. I asked a few questions here, but it’s up to you to ask the questions that need to be explored on your campus.

As you get back in “school mode” with next year approaching, take time to think of the things that seem most untouchable on your campus and spend some time wondering if there might be a better way.

It Better Be Real

This is different from most of what I’ve been writing, but I’m giving it a shot. It’s probably the first time I’m working through something that got me mad via this blog. I hope the point isn’t lost in the details. -AH


 

When you develop a relationship, it (2)

I spent some time looking at cars recently, and though I didn’t end up with a new vehicle, I came away with this insight: Using a relationship to get something what you want is crap.

That’s a little more direct than I usually am, but I was a little upset by the whole thing. There might have been an even more direct summation of my feelings somewhere along the way that’s not getting published.

MY DEALERSHIP EXPERIENCE

At one dealership in particular, I worked with a salesman who was determined to go the relational route for this sell. He did everything he could to fast track our little relationship.  Even before we really got started, he was taking care of me. “Do you need anything? What can I get you before we head out to the lot?”

With my ice cold water in hand, we make our way to the vehicle. He asks if I have a family and about my kids before telling me about himself, and he asks about what I’m driving right now. As we arrive to the vehicle, he starts by talking about the safety features and how they will protect my kids in the back seat in the event of an accident. After hearing more about the car, he gets the info he needs so that I can take it for a test drive. He hops in the car and we’re off, but not before he starts to ask what sort of music I like so he can play it.

He finds something he thinks matches what I said (which is forgivable enough), and somehow we get to talking about how we bought our van at CarMax. “So, how was that?” he asks with more than a hint of judgement. After explaining that it was fine for us, he chimes in, “But, it’s just so impersonal there, right? You’re just in, out, and that’s it.”

A REAL MOMENT

Feeling a little judged for my previous car buying experience (which was just what we wanted), I decide to shut my mouth for a minute (which is an introvert trick–car salesmen don’t know about this I think) and let him direct the conversation. He asks what my wife does for a living. Here’s where things get complicated because I choose to answer his question the way I would if a friend were to ask and proceed to tell him about the work that the organization my wife works for does to make the world a better place (in one sentence–they are working to end child slavery on Lake Volta in Ghana by helping villages learn to fish better using aquaculture in exchange for the freedom of the child slaves and reintegration into their families).

He started to get really uneasy at this point, and I wonder if it’s because he just didn’t know where to go next.

You see, just like anyone else who has done this before, I know that there are really four things he needs to know: Info on my desired monthly payments, credit, down payment plans, and trade in (if any).

And he’s chosen the (allegedly) relational route to try to get this. Except the thing is, the people I have relationships with don’t act like this. As it turns out, I left out a few things from my description above.

Now I love to be right (and I was/am pretty frustrated by this not car buying experience), so I’ve tried to be objective about this. This is more like how my “conversation” developed:

So, you have kids? And they’re young? *Be sure to sell him on the car’s safety.*

Your wife works, too? > Where do you need your payments to be?

Do you like the truck you drive now? It’s a great vehicle. > Is it paid off?

On the one hand, our interactions looked like a relationship; but on the other, he was trying to use a relationship as a way to get close to me quickly so that he could get the info he needed to make the sale.

But that’s his job. Maybe I’m foolish for thinking anything else might happen on a trip to a car dealership.

EDUCATORS, WE ARE NOT SALESMEN

The whole thing has started me thinking about relationships in schools. Some of the students I’ve worked with know the drill and see it coming better than I saw the questions from the salesman. They know what to expect when an educator is trying to connect with them, and they know that that’s likely going to look like a relationship. It’s up to us to make sure we’re doing things the right way in our relationships with students.

Let me make this clear: I think authentic relationships are the key to any community’s health (school or otherwise), and I’m in no way advocating abandoning this sort of approach. What I do believe is that if we’re using relationships to accomplish other goals, we’re wrong.

The way we model relationships with all of our students has to be authentic to what we believe relationships should be.

Relationships matter because people matter (and not because they have a particular fringe benefit that helps us accomplish some other goal).

If we’ve ever used relationships to get a student to behave, or to get a piece of information, or to do anything other than value another person (regardless of age, race, creed, orientation, or any other way you can categorize a person), we’ve missed it.

Starting the new year, let’s get this right.

Get to know the folks on your campus because they’re people and because that makes it worth it. That makes it real.

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Image created by Matt Miller (@jmattmiller)

The Invisible People In Your School

Right now, there are invisible people in your school.

No, not some sort of ghosts like those who haunt people in books and movies; in your school are students who are “invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see” them for who they are (not unlike the unnamed narrator in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man whose self-description is quoted here).

They’re largely unnoticed, many are compliant, and all are disconnected. Some of them think this is the only way they’ll ever experience school; after all, they missed the welcome to high school orientation, they’re not sure who to talk to about sports or clubs, and their older siblings preceded them in living the invisible high school life (maybe graduating, maybe not). So why expect anything different?

They’re in more of our classrooms than we’d guess, even in unlikely places–places where lots of people are, where people look like everything is ok, where school doesn’t seem to be a struggle, where students live in poverty or affluence or alone or in fear.

But do we even know who they are?

At your school, do you know who is involved and who isn’t? Could you put pen to paper and create a list of who is connected to this sport, that teacher, this club, or that group? Do you know how students would answer the question, “Who are your people?” on your campus? It’s time we look into how we ensure that we’re reaching out to all students who are part of our campuses.

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You’d be hard pressed to find an educator who would argue against the positive benefits of relationships; however, if we really believe that relationships impact student success, that belonging at school is prerequisite for many students’ belief in their own ability to attain success, we need to take action on their behalf.

Look at the students who were new to your campus this year. Who struggled? Who continues to struggle to meet academic and behavior expectations after spring break? What needs to change in your models and instruction as you teach students to expect better of themselves on your campus?

As you think through those questions, consider what the best ways to prepare students who are new to your campus to meet your expectations next fall. What have you done so far to know who your struggling students are likely to be in the group who will be new to your campus next year? What are their greatest needs? How do you know? What will you do to connect them to something positive in your school community?

Whatever your response to those questions, resist the easy path of believing the rumors about that next group. Instead, determine their gaps and find a great way to teach them expectations and engage them as part of your school community.2 (2)

On my campus, we’re brainstorming options for a number of different populations among our incoming 9th graders. We’re talking about how to serve students who continue to struggle academically with minimal attendance and discipline issues interfering with their school work. We’re talking about how to serve students who might have large gaps in understanding our behavior expectations at our school. We’re talking about how to intervene before high school even begins in order to establish positive relationships while providing a taste of academic success for students who have traditionally struggled.

Though we have experienced success with several new initiatives this school year, I’m thrilled that our success this year is driving conversations toward helping more next year. If you’re reading this with the successful programs you have in place in mind as justification for not starting new conversations to help those invisible students on your campus, you’ve missed it.

What will you do different next year to help these invisible students?

Yes, right now, there are invisible people in your school community. They’re in mine, too. We’re actively looking for them and learning along the way. You should, too.

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No Whispers

no whispers

The night before Robinson Cano returned to New York to play against his former team, Jimmy Fallon decided to help him get used to the boos Cano would experience at Yankee Stadium.

He set up a huge cardboard cutout of Cano and let New Yorkers boo at him, you know, to practice for their booing the next evening. Check out how things went:

I love the reaction that people have when they realize he’s there. How quickly did they flip from booing to embracing Cano, some of them literally giving him a hug.

Nobody thought anything of these people yelling at a cardboard image of Robinson Cano because that reaction was expected. But when Cano showed up, they changed their language and their stance.

Hall of Fame 2012 (1)What if we chose to speak about people only in that positive light at school this year? Think about the power there.

What conversations could you commit to starting? What conversations could you commit to ending?

What if we focused on what we trust in each other, or how we saw the best in someone recently? What if we assumed the best about each other and always extended the benefit of the doubt?

What if we decided that we weren’t going to allow others to talk poorly of students or colleagues? What if we only engaged in conversation that brought people together instead of dividing them into parts?

Think about specific conversations that you are part of at your school. What if those went differently?

What if visitors entered and left your campus knowing that they mattered?

What if students knew that they were a valuable part of the school, even as they learn to meet behavior expectations?

What if teachers knew that that risk wouldn’t be misinterpreted?

What if families knew they were invited to participate in a culture of trust with their student on campus?

What if you knew they weren’t whispering about you?

What if there were no whispers on your campus?

(Thanks to my friend @stormyhickman1 for pointing me to this video and getting me thinking about this.)

Mind the Gap

post-4683-0-89462200-1402415014Pernille Ripp published this great challenge for administrators recently in which she addressed the gap that often exists between teachers and administrators head on.

Her entire post is powerful and has stuck with me over the past few days. It has had me thinking about a few changes that could have a profound impact on the trust between administrators and teachers in so many of our schools.

Our words build and destroy trust

Certain conversations have settled in as commonplace in education. In her post, Pernille put it this way:

From the poor jokes about going to the dark side to the hushed conversations behind closed doors discussing the latest admin “screw up,” it seems that there is an invisible mountain between teachers and administration that both sides don’t understand the origin of.

This is a situation where many people will look at that, think to themselves that there must be a better way, and not take the time to decide to do something different. We’re crazy if we think we can keep having those thoughts and conversations and expect something different as a result.

I’ve written before about the great care we should take to build others up with our words. If we want a change in the gap, we need a different story. Instead of thinking of and talking about people “going to the dark side,” we need leaders who will be so committed to bringing light that there’s no room for the previous belief. Administrators—commit to being great teachers of teachers who will support teachers when they need it and who will positively lead the campus with excellence.

In addition, we need teachers who will squelch the old story when it comes up (and it will come up). Replace these tired stories with stories of success. During those times when there just isn’t as much (or anything for you) to be positive about, having those landmarks to go back to will be reassuring.

Communicating our mutual trust

There are some assumptions on both sides that can inhibit trust. This won’t solve all of the problems between administrators and teachers, but if we could only correct one assumption, this would by my suggestion: Assume that people are doing the best that they know how.

This includes the idea that my principal may be showing me trust the best way he/she knows how. Be that as it may, how do we work through the gaps in our mutual understanding? Here’s a couple of ideas.

Administrators–Start the year by asking teachers what they feel good at, what they are working to get better at, and how they prefer praise and your attention. Then, make it your job to get them excited about taking on that new challenge. Get to know your teachers, and know the best ways to show your support for them. It can be both incredibly encouraging to have an administrator’s ear and a little terrifying to think you may have just invited that administrator to the riskiest thing you tried in years in your classroom. Know your audience before you show up on a risky day for teachers. The right support fans the flames of creativity. The wrong support is like a fire blanket for innovative ideas.

If it seems like one of your teachers who you can tell is doing a good job doesn’t know it, go out of your way to fix that. Tell that teacher what you love that you’ve seen and ask him or her what you can do to offer support. Maybe it’s time the teacher needs, maybe it’s a thank you note for the extra hours you see the teacher put in or the way that teacher cares for students; whatever it is, there is something you can do to champion and celebrate that teacher. Do it. I don’t know how isn’t good enough.

My only word for teachers here: If you have very specific expectations for your administrator, you should make those in a very specific way. As an administrator, it’s helpful to know those things, and it gives me a way to know that I’m going to meet that need. I’m just one administrator, but I appreciate it.

Is there anybody out there?

Pernille’s blog got me fired up—but not in a defensive way. It got me excited because I hope that I’m working to be an administrator who interacts with staff in a way that these questions don’t come up. Or maybe if they come up (like by people who are new to the campus or the district), people are reassured by campus veterans that risk taking, transparency, trust, and support are all part of campus culture.

So, to Pernille and to all the other teachers who are exhausting themselves to push students to learn, first of all–thank you. Your work makes schools the place where students love to learn, where they know they feel safe, and where they know they’re loved. There are administrators who want what you want, and I hope they are leading your schools.

To administrators, let’s make this happen. If you agree that change needs to happen, start thinking of what you’re going to do differently to make that change reality. It can happen, and as a labeled leader on your campus, I think it’s your responsibility to start the conversation.

Speak Into the Lives of Others

When I was in the classroom, much of my favorite student writing came in response to an assignment I often ended the school year with in my English classes that dealt with two weighty ideas.

Students first encountered this claim—“The thing about humans is that they are constantly comparing themselves to one another”—before moving on to the idea that with few exceptions, we are “people who [are] wired up so that something outside [ourselves] tells [us] who [we are]” (both quotations from Donald Miller’s, Searching for God Knows What).

That’s a lot to consider, but in class, when we kept the conversation focused on how this might apply to the literature we covered throughout the year, we not only found this idea to be true, but we also found this truth to be much more tolerable when applied to anyone other than ourselves. It seemed much easier to see that Huck Finn believed in half-truths and bald faced lies throughout his story than it was to ask whether we have treated others as less than human for the same reasons. Likewise, it seemed much easier to condemn the community that shuns Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter than to look at the reasons we accept or reject people today.

Despite the relative discomfort caused by bringing this all up in class, my students overwhelmed me with their responses as they wrote about taking care of their families, setting goals to make people smile daily, and how exhausting it is to try to keep everyone thinking that everything is going great in their lives. Many wrote about clinging to the values that had been instilled in them. More than a few wrote about the relief of not having to be known as “the funny guy” or “the quiet one” after high school.

If we are truly wired up so that something outside of us tells us who we are, we need to identify who we are letting in (and maybe spend some time evaluating what’s healthy and what’s not so healthy). More than that, though, what need to recognize that we have to say to others—friends and foes, new and old—matters more than we might have previously believed.

I hope you seek out opportunities to speak life and truth into the lives of those around you—both those closest to you and those you’ve not even met. It’s your responsibility and your privilege to be able to invest in others in this way.

It’s incredibly encouraging to watch students and staff carry this sort of challenge out on campus. The power hidden within our words is obvious in the yellowed thank you letters that hang in classrooms around campus and in the conversations I watch students make time for when a friend needs their undivided attention. It’s also there in that look in a student’s eye that says, “I want to say something life-giving right now, but I just don’t know how or I’m not ready to let my guard down with these people,” and it’s in a hundred other places as well.

Speak life 2

Regardless of your role at school—admin, teacher, support staff, student—let go of whatever holds you back, take the opportunities to thank those who have poured into you, and challenge others to continue to do likewise.

As you move throughout your week, be deliberate—go out of your way—to speak life into the lives of others and build them up.

Think about it before you move on to the rest of the internet, and make a plan to build someone up.

How (not) to Think of Social Emotional Learning

season ending%0AsaleA Lesson From 5th Grade PE

I can’t remember much from 5th grade P.E., but one day is as clear as can be in my memory.

On the day that I remember well, our P.E. teachers had us run and run and run for the first half of class (and I ran more than most as running was my thing). Once when we were basically worn out, the coaches used the second half of class to drive home a point about the value of taking care of yourself. They gave each student a straw and told us to run until they blew the whistle. So I’m running, running, running, and getting pretty tired. Finally the whistle blows and I think I’m going to get some reprieve when they give us our instructions: we are only to catch our breath through the straw we’ve been given.

As it turns out, that’s nearly impossible for a bunch of exhausted 5th-graders. I cheated because there was no way I was going to admit I couldn’t. I could hardly breathe.

My P.E. teacher went on to connect this to why folks with emphysema experienced exhaustion so quickly. I have no idea how accurate this comparison is, but for the first time, 11-year old me understood that this was why my grandmother always needed to take breaks while we were playing.

How We Think of Social Emotional Learning 

All this came to mind as I began to wonder if we’ve begun to treat Social Emotional Learning as a solution to self-inflicted problems. If we’ve ever characterized our audience for SEL using this sort of mindset, we’ve entirely missed the point.

It’s worth mentioning that I don’t think you have to be mean-spirited to make this mistake. In fact, I think that can happen even with the best intentions in mind. I never intended to think of SEL as a solution for narrowly-defined groups, but my practice has probably said otherwise at times.

That’s not okay.

It’s imperative that we’re telling the right story with regard to SEL. Too much is on the line to stumble here. Framing SEL poorly tarnishes the life-giving value that Social Emotional Learning holds in the proper context.

Why Do We Narrow Our SEL Focus?

On the campus where I serve, part of our vision is that all of our students will know the value of giving more than they take, will be responsible for their own actions, and will know that they are an important part of our school community. If our work with Social Emotional Learning is narrowly targeted to specific groups, I’m not sure that we can do that.

We often narrow our focus with the best intentions as we try to accomplish ambitious goals like the one listed above. We believe addressing the areas of highest need best will solve the immediate problems, and the immediate problems are always what get the most attention.

I think there are a few myths out there that drive some of the decisions to narrowly focus SEL instruction. I’d like to share a few and offer a wider view that may help re-center some of our views of SEL.

Myth #1: SEL is for younger students.

Reality: While it’s true that younger students, whether they be elementary school students or freshmen at your high school, need a more fundamental set of skills for both academics and behavior, students of all ages can work to know themselves better, relate better to others, and make responsible choices.

Myth #2: SEL isn’t for students who excel academically.

Reality: While students who achieve well academically often present as having it all together, they’re often under a tremendous amount of pressure. Anyone who has spent time with students knows that this isn’t unique to high achievers. All students benefit from making good decisions about their needs as individuals and in relationships.

Myth #3: SEL is for students who weren’t taught to behave at home.

Reality: Although it’s commonly thought that some students simply know how to behave when they enter the school doors, I believe that it’s our job to make sure we’ve taught our expectations with fidelity to every student. At schools where most parents read to their children, teachers don’t forgo their reading instruction, do they? All students should be equipped to manage themselves and their relationships with others in the school setting.

Despite the fact that it is sometimes treated this way, Social Emotional Learning isn’t an antidote for the side effects of youth, academic achievement, or behavioral gaps. It’s the means by which we can open all students up to the possibility that they could learn more about knowing themselves, relating to others, and making responsible decisions than they thought possible.

Social Emotional Learning in Focus

Let me be clear: Even the best SEL instruction doesn’t level the playing field for every student. Students are going to struggle, it’s still going to be tough, and some will want to quit trying. That shouldn’t deter our efforts. It would be irresponsible to remain passive when we know that we can provide teaching to help students know themselves, relate well to others, and make responsible decisions.

If we’re not able to find time to help our students develop these qualities, I’m worried.

I think it is more than possible that students can be equipped with the knowledge and skills to choose something better than ignorance when it comes to knowing themselves, relating to others, and making responsible decisions.

How could we allow that to not happen?

Unshared Ideas

I’ve really been enjoying reading Walter Isaacson’s recent book, The Innovators. It’s a history of the computer and the Internet that also explores what made the groups and individuals such visionary leaders and entrepreneurs when their respective innovations took off.

Reading through an early section recently, I felt like the story of John Vincent Atanasoff’s experience with innovation really connected to where I’m at right now. Here’s part of it.

In 1937, Atanasoff was driving along a country road when the idea came to him for an electronic computing device. He quickly began to work toward construction of his version of an early computer and made considerable progress. Impressively, while working largely in isolation at Iowa State University, he managed to develop a computing machine that was, at least in some respects, on par with the work that teams of engineers and mathematicians were developing collaboratively at Bell Labs. As you might expect, in the long run, collaboration won the day and the computing device being crafted at Bell Labs worked better, faster.

But that’s not what caught my eye.

Isaacson says that progress on Atanasoff’s project came to a near stand still when a programming issue came up and “there were no teams of machinists and engineers at Iowa State he could turn to for help” (60). That was astonishnig to me. He was on the verge of finishing up one of the first computing devices ever created and his work came to a stand still because he didn’t have a team with whom he could solve the problem.

As a result, “the almost working machine,” an idea that was just as viable as the one being researched at Bell Labs, ended up being “put into storage in the basement of the physics building at Iowa State, and a few years later no one seemed to remember what it did” (61).

Maybe you’re saying to yourself, “How much would anyone (much less academics) forget such an important invention?”

Here’s how much: In 1948, not even 10 years after it was in working order, a grad student disassembled Atanasoff’s nearly complete computer to be able to use the space it occupied. He didn’t recognize what the computer was even for.

Enlightened trial and error succeeds (1)

All of this started me thinking about how I react when I have the start of a great idea that’s not totally there yet. Too often I choose to sit on the idea instead of sharing it.

“Don’t share that now,” I’ll tell myself. “It’s too confusing right now. And what about problem X that you haven’t solved yet? And who exactly has extra time to be working on this anyway?”

I know that I err on the side of wanting to look like I have it together when I share my ideas, and I don’t think I’m alone in this. Reading through Atanasoff’s story, though, I worry that I have developed a habit of tucking good ideas away because I either didn’t want to ask for help or didn’t know who to ask.

All of this is happening in the midst of the easiest time ever for educators to be connected to one another.

I love that we don’t have to be in the same places today to “visit the lab” where the experts are, and I love that the increased communication has flattened much of the hierarchy that could have existed there in the past.

There’s almost no reason that Atanasoff’s issue should come up again, right? We (connected educators) are a powerful enough voice that people who are looking for help shouldn’t find themselves on the outside looking in. However, I’ll be the first to admit that this doesn’t just happen naturally. It takes a little initiative.

Here’s my encouragement and my challenge: Wherever you are as an educator, you need to be learning from others and sharing with others. Even those ideas that aren’t “presentation ready” yet, even the one you’re almost sure can’t work. Share them. You never know who you will inspire or who might see a creative solution to your linchpin roadblock.

Isaacson concludes his chapter on the invention of the earliest computers by saying:

Innovation is usually a group effort, involving collaboration between visionaries and engineers, and […] creativity comes from drawing on many sources. Only in storybooks do inventions come like a thunderbolt, or a lightbulb popping out of the head of a lone individual in a basement or garage.

I couldn’t agree more.

If you can’t figure everything out on your own, you’re not inept; you’re normal.

If you think your ideas aren’t ready to be shared yet, you’re probably right. Go ahead and share them; that’s how they’ll get better.

If you’re a well connected educator, be willing to listen to a myriad of trusted and new voices.

Sitting on our ideas risks delaying innovation that could profoundly impact our students’ learning experiences. Admittedly, every idea won’t be as influential as developing the next computer (and they don’t need to be).

The real risk is in leaving ideas sitting covered up, collecting dust.

Only in storybooks do inventions come