Moving — and the Therapeutic Benefit of Children’s Literature

Moving. For most people, the topic does not conjure up positive images.

I’m a planner, so I spent the better part of a year preparing for “the big move” from St. Louis to Chicago. I purged, planned, and prepared. I think this approach made the experience more organized but also more all-encompassing and exhausting.

I’m also a reader, so, when I’m working through a challenging patch, I sometimes go looking for a book. Au contraire, it is not a self-help book I seek, exactly, but a children’s literature selection that might fit the bill. This is how I happened upon Alexander, Who’s Not (Do You Hear Me? I Mean It!) Going to Move by Judith Viorst.

I had fond memories of a book with a similar title, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, in which — my readers may know — our protagonist repeats, throughout a series of mishaps and discomforts throughout the day, “I think I’ll move to Australia.” I invoke this as a silent mantra myself every now and then, which tells you just how much Viorst’s original 1972 Alexander book stuck with me. So, you can imagine my delight in finding …Not…Going to Move.

My new read did not disappoint. And what an interesting pair of books! Taken as a set, through the author’s gifts for humor, repetition, and cadence, we explore both the lure and dread of change.  Thanks, Judith Viorst.




Alone Together

Alone TogetherAfter a full career as teacher, independent school leader, and consultant, Edes Gilbert recently returned to St. Louis. And there, thanks to mutual colleagues, I have had the privilege of beginning to get to know her.

It was in this context that Edes presented me with a copy of Alone Together, a memoir of her early life. As the story of her experiences as a child and adolescent in the 1930’s and ’40’s unfolds, we are given a window into family life of the time. Among the interesting themes is the mid-twentieth century view of the needs of children and the role of their parents, a stunning contrast to today. Parents, educators, and the children in their care will find the book thought-provoking and rich material for discussion.


The Fault in Our Stars

Crossroads College Preparatory School lost a member of the Class of 2013 to cancer this school year. Meredith’s death has been felt deeply in this school community, as you might guess. As adults, we do our best to support her schoolmates dealing with this loss, we are struck with both profound empathy and admiration as we watch her parents and siblings carry on, and, of course, we wrestle with our own existential questions. Premature death rattles our sense of fairness, stirs up our anxieties about loss of our own loved ones, and reminds us of our mortality.

fault 2I learned recently that a member of Meredith’s class and her mother were enjoying an audio book version of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, a young-adult novel about the relationship between two teens with cancer diagnoses. Curious, given genre and themes, and eager to digest the book before the soon-to-be-released movie opens, I got a copy. I read it in nearly one sitting.

Hazel, our protagonist, is bright, verbal, acerbic, scrappy, and very much a teen. Think Juno meets cancer. She quickly captured my interest and heart. Her love-interest, Augustus, and the supporting characters are sufficiently complex to seem real. And, while there were moments when I was annoyed with Green for seeming to too intentionally play with our emotions, overall, I think the plot works. The reason to read The Fault in Our Stars, however, is its deft touch with those existential questions.

Quick, pick up a copy before the movies comes out.

Women, Leadership, Independent Schools: The Double-Bind Paradox

Women make up only one-third of the population of heads of independent schools, a statistic that has made little movement in the past decade. What are the variables at play?

My colleagues Liza Lee, Head of School at Columbus School for Girls, and Melissa Boocock Soderberg, Head of School at Columbus Academy, joined me in exploring this question during the fall and winter months, culminating in a presentation at the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) Annual Conference in February.

Using the work of Jill Flynn, Kathryn Heath, and Mary Davis Holt in Six Paradoxes Women Leaders Face in 2013 (Harvard Business Review, 1/03/13) as a springboard, we considered trends beyond the independent school world, examined data available from NAIS, and reflected on our own experiences. Here, in several parts, is what we learned.

The Double-Bind Paradox

Flynn, Holt, & Heath assert that the personal qualities considered leader-like in men are often seen as negative in women. They cite a 2007 report from Catalyst, with the compelling title The Double-Bind Dilemma for Women in Leadership: Damned if You Do and Doomed if You Don’t, revealing that female leaders are either perceived as competent or liked — but rarely both.

This video from the Pantene Philippines #ShineStrong campaign illustrates the point clearly:

My personal experience with this phenomenon includes being labeled a “bossy girl” as a child — associating shame with my inclinations to organize and direct. As I shared with our NAIS Conference audience, I have had conversations with other female school leaders who express the same lament. We need to be aware of the messages we give our assertive “tween girls,” in particular. And as educators and parents, we have critical roles here.

The recently-launched Ban Bossy movement is an effort by Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In organization and the Girl Scouts to address this very concern. Their work has met with both applause and criticism as you might guess (see Sheryl Sandberg’s “Ban Bossy” Campaign Meets Critics. Christian Science Monitor, 3/20/14). I find the movement heartening and the resources they offer, worth a look.

If we are interested in seeing more women in leadership positions, we need to encourage the qualities that will enable them to be successful there.




American Promise

Educators and parents everywhere should take the time to watch and discuss American Promise, a documentary that tracks the lives of two African-American boys, Idris Brewster and Seun Summers, over a twelve-year period including shared years at The Dalton School. The filmmakers are Idris’ parents, Michèle Stephenson and Joe Brewster.

Both provocative and intimate, the film stirs thinking about many topics, among them: the experience of African-American boys in independent and public schools, parental anxiety, attention and motivation, the college placement process, and dealing with family tragedy.

Most profound, from my perspective, was the illustration of the impact of the key or (to use Robert Brooks’ term) “charismatic” adult in a child’s life. In this case, the role of charismatic adult is filled for Seun by his public school advisor or guidance counselor. Applause for her! We should wish such a presence for every child in every school setting.

Kudos to Connecticut Association of Independent Schools Commission on Professional Development for leading the way in facilitating shared viewing and discussion in their region.

You’ll find American Promise live-streaming on POV on PBS through March 6.

Prediction & Response: Engaging Learners

Two articles about pedagogy caught my attention on Twitter* last week.

In What’s Your Best Guess? Predicting Answers Leads to Deeper Learning (Mind/Shift, 2/24/12), author and journalist Annie Murphy Paul emphasizes the power of engaging learners by asking them to make a prediction before offering them information. While many teachers use this strategy, it may not be a staple of the repertoire. And perhaps it should be!

Inspired, my colleagues and I restructured our presentation at the CASE/NAIS Annual Conference this week, asking participants in our session to predict data before we shared it. You can guess the effect. Our hour together seemed more interactive, participants seemed to have a greater vested interest in hearing what we had to say, and an element of fun was interjected. The session had a good discussion dynamic, and I suspect that Annie Murphy Paul deserves some credit.


Photo: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

In Sticking with Students, Responding Effectively to Incorrect Answers (EdWeek, 1/6/14), Riverdale Country School reading specialist Brooke McCaffrey acknowledges teachers’ inclination to move on swiftly when a student offers on off-the-mark response or expresses confusion in front of classmates. She nudges us to instead use a variety of strategies to help that student reach the right answer, including validating any parts of the response that were correct, offering a cue, restating the question, and giving the student additional time. She points out that this approach conveys to the student both high expectations and belief in that student’s ability to learn. Perhaps more important, McCaffrey offers us some strategies for avoiding these potentially awkward moments: providing wait time before expecting a response and asking students to process a response first with a partner before bringing it to the group.

Like Paul’s points, McCaffrey’s words have applicability to our work with adults. I remember learning in those undergraduate education classes (in the Dark Ages) to count to ten to allow for response time. In the moment, this can seem like an eternity, but it works. In a class of fourth graders, in a faculty meeting, in a conference workshop, as soon as participants realize you’re going to wait for them to process, the energy and dynamic in the room shifts.

*Thanks to Twitter colleagues @MindShiftKQED and @granadosmaggie for enriching my reading diet.

On Developing Grit: Part 3 of 3

Part 3: A Quibble 

I think Tom Hoerr has it absolutely right when he says that “teaching for grit is more an attitude than a strategy” (Fostering Grit, p. 10). In fact, when we set out to write a lesson for grit-building, I think we get it wrong.


Photo courtesy of Crossroads College Preparatory School

A lesson plan that sets out deliberately to give the student a frustration experience disregards a fundamental principle of compassion. The well-known quotation, attributed both to Ian MacLaren and (apparently erroneously) to Plato, captures it well: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”  We don’t know what challenges our students face outside of our line of vision, but we can count on the fact that they exist.

It seems to me that the best teachers create an environment, provide resources, and plan learning activities with that sweet spot in mind: thplace where the student both must work for it and has a reasonable chance of eventual success. I believe it is at the outer edges of what Vygotsky refers to as the student’s zone of proximal development — rather than beyond it — that we find the model for developing grit. This framework keeps us rooted in the essence of our work while helping students in our care to learn, to trust, and to develop resilience.

On Developing Grit (Part 2 of 3)

Part 2: A Concern


Girls on the Run St. Louis, 11/16/13

Girls on the Run is a program designed to encourage development of positive self-image, camaraderie, and perseverance toward goals in pre-adolescent girls. The program, offered in 200+ cities throughout the U.S. and Canada, runs for 10-12 week sessions in an after-school format, culminating in a 5K run in each venue.

I love the concept and considered it a privilege to be able to participate with my friend Elizabeth in the St. Louis run (at a brisk walking pace) last month. The St. Louis event was a sight to behold: nearly 6,000 participants filled the streets, a giant pep rally of girls from ages 8-14. The level of organization and the spirit of the event were impressive.

As Elizabeth and I were chugging along, enjoying the scene of runners in their red shirts stretched out before us, a girl and her mother gradually overtook us. As they passed, we heard a bit of whimpering in a nine-year-old voice. And then the adult response, teeth obviously clenched, in a low growl: “Just suck it up.” 

Which leaves me wondering, as you might imagine. In our coaching of parents to give their children opportunities to endure some discomfort in order to learn and grow (the blessing of a skinned knee, so to speak), are we inadvertently asking already-anxious parents to manage one more thing?

On Developing Grit (Part 1 of 3)

Part 1: An Important Idea — and a Valuable Resource

It seems clear from the research summarized by Paul Tough in How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, particularly the work of Angela Duckworth, that “grit” is an important characteristic of successful people and a quality that schools and parents should foster in children.

What should we consider in creating a school environment that encourages the development of grit? Thomas R. Hoerr offers a helpful, practical resource in his new book, Fostering Grit: How Do I Prepare My Students for the Real World?, published by ASCD in August as part of their Arias series. It is a quick read that will stimulate some thinking.

Hoerr diverges ever so slightly from Duckworth’s definition as perseverance and passion for long-term goals, instead describing grit as “tenacity, perseverance, and the ability to never give up” (p.1), a component of our executive functioning that provides us with self-monitoring and emotional control. He urges us to think of teaching for grit as an attitude, one that may require us to stretch our adult comfort level with student struggle.


Among the important points Hoerr makes is his reminder that our own behavior serves as the most powerful of lessons. “Our students need to know that somewhere along the way – maybe lots of places along the way – we used grit to find our success” (p. 13). I would add that teachers will find it easier to adopt this mantra if school heads and principals, too, recognize the value of sharing their own vulnerabilities in their journeys toward their goals.

You may enjoy reading these other responses to Fostering Grit:

In her blog Principal J, Jessica Johnson, an elementary school principal and district assessment coordinator, emphasizes the relationship of Hoerr’s offering to Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset.

Sam Patterson, a K-5 technology integration specialist, reviews Fostering Grit in his blog, My Paperless Classroom. Patterson describes it as “a great primer on active teaching for socio-emotional growth” and commends it for its clarity, noting that the book “reads like a well-planned PD session.”

Contemplating the Power of Engagement


In Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined (Basic Books, 2013), Scott Barry Kaufman presents his work on a new theory of intelligence set in the context of a broad review of the literature on cognitive science  — from Binet to Torrance to Csikszentmihalyi to Gardner to Dweck — juxtaposed with his own personal story.  I found the book to be thought-provoking, hard work, and compelling.

There are many goodies here to make this a worthy read. Here’s the big nugget:

“Intelligence is the dynamic interplay of engagement and abilities in pursuit of personal goals.” (p. 302)

You’ll get a sense of the voice and narrative by watching this 10-minute video of Scott Barry Kaufman discussing the themes in his book.

If, after fully contemplating Kaufman’s definition, we seek to leverage it in classrooms, what would that look like? Kaufman gives us only a clue here (p. 306), praising progressive educators for approaches that emphasize:

  • learning goals;
  • emotional self-regulation;
  • self-regulated learning strategies;
  • self-expression;
  • self-pacing;
  • context;
  • deliberate practice;
  • grit;
  • passion;
  • persistence;
  • play.

I am eager to see what develops.