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.


Here’s a coming-of-age film portraying the life of an Arab girl. Making it even more novel, it’s reportedly the first feature film directed by a Saudi woman. Haifaa Al-Mansour gives us an appealing, surprisingly spirited character in Wadjda and a sensitive, subtle depiction of Arab family life. It’s a fascinating exploration of resilience — and, yes, grit.

If you work with middle schoolers, you should see this film. Better yet, if you work with middle schoolers, you should take them to see this film. The movie is rich with topics for discussion and opportunities for cross-cultural understanding. I offer two minor cautions. You’ll want to prepare them for the foreign-film experience of reading subtitles. And, though the film is rated PG, there’s one queasy-making moment when 10-year-old Wadjda deals with a sexual taunt from a group of adult men, but she handles it with aplomb.

Don’t miss it.

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. 

Catalytic Questioning

Hal Gregersen describes himself as a “catalytic questioner.” INSEAD Professor of Innovation and Leadership and co-author of The Innovator’s DNA with Clay Christensen and Jeff Dyer, Gregersen challenges organizations to develop innovative cultures.

Gergersen wowed the audience at the Independent Schools Association of the Central States (ISACS) Annual Conference on November 8. He relates his work to the future of learning and to our work in independent schools, noting both the essential need for questioning to stimulate creative solutions and these dismal facts about classroom life:

  • the average child, age 6-18, asks only one question per one-hour class per month;
  • the average teacher asks students 291 questions per day and waits an average of one second for a reply.

Watch the video below for a bit of inspiration. Then share with your teacher colleagues the just-published article, Hal Gregersen: “Teachers should reward questions, not just answers” (Wired/UK, 11/08/13). 

Legos for Girls

You may have heard that Lego is working to increase its market among girls. This caught the periphery of my attention back in 2012 when there was a bit of a flap about Lego’s tactic of producing pink and purple blocks for the female market.

Then, the Twitter stream went abuzz last month when Lego added a female scientist to its mini-figure collection. This wonderful editorial by Maia Weinstock in Scientific American moved Lego’s recent marketing efforts from the background to front-and-center of my awareness: “Breaking Brick Stereotypes: Lego Unveils a Female Scientist” (9/02/13).

As I read, with interest, about “Professor C. Bodin,” our new woman-in-STEM mini-figure, my eyes drifted to Weinstock’s photo mashup of Lego female torsos*:


Image: Maia Weinstock

Mattel introduced the highly successful venture of Barbie, with her 36″ bust and 18″ waist, in 1959 (see “Pretty Plastic Barbie: Forever What We Make Her.” NPR, 3/09/08). Fifty-four years later, we have Legos with décolletage. I guess Lego would tell us that, like Barbie, this sells.

What is Lego thinking!? That to sell toys to girls, it is necessary to portray their gender in a sexualized motif? And we’re buying this stuff? Yikes.

For more enlightening data and opinion on this topic, see:

*Just for the record: In correspondence, Weinstock told me that, after creating the image above, she learned that one of the torsos is actually a male pirate. You probably can guess which one.

Ode to a Middle School Teacher

Gordon Clem died last week. According to his obituary

“He started a long and successful career at St. Thomas Choir School in New York City following college; first, as athletic coach, a math and science instructor, and eventually serving as Headmaster for many years. While at St. Thomas he organized an annual Training Workshop for math and science teachers from the U.S. and abroad, which has been held at the Dana Hall School in Wellesley, MA for the last 50 years. He also helped to organize similar workshops throughout the US and abroad.”

Gordon was a model and mentor to many. Our paths crossed in the late 1990’s when he consulted with Friends Academy (MA) about elementary and middle school mathematics curriculum and pedagogy. My conversations with Gordon sent home for me the critical importance of a high level of mathematics comfort and proficiency in our middle school math teachers. He shook his head at the archaic generalist model (in which I was credentialed in the 1970’s) of certifying teachers to address all subjects, K-8. And, I had the definite impression that he identified as a middle school math teacher himself.

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Gordon Clem and Nikki Li Hartliep on the occasion of his 80th birthday

Middle school teachers need subject-area expertise, love for the quirkiness of emerging adolescence, flexibility, patience, and sense of humor — not a small bill to fill. In honor of Gordon, I offer applause for middle school teachers everywhere and this article by Launa Schweizer, who captures beautifully the nature of their work: 

          “My Amygdala Ate My Homework!” Rewire Me, 9/06/13.

Thanks to Dane Peters for calling the article to my attention and to Murray Lopdell-Lawrence for the photo – both fellows also touched by Gordon’s quiet wisdom.