Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Digging A Hole, Building The Bridge, and Making Changes

“You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone's soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows that they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift.” 
- Erin Morgenstern

Classroom discussions at morning meeting
Storytelling shapes my teaching. I teach metric conversions through telling a story about my cousin Meg (plot twist - her name isn't even Meg) calling my great grandmother, Millie ("Meg, Call Millie"), explain the purpose of an anemometer by regaling my class with my mom's reaction to my various speeding tickets commendations for excellence in high speed driving and, and countless other tales. But each of these are more or less a one-off story. It teaches the concept, we refer to it to help establish retention, and then we move on.

However, there are three parables I constantly refer to, especially during morning meeting, in one on one conversations, or in small group work. They shape the dynamic of the classroom and help bolster the students with senses of support, independence, and resiliency. 

"How Are You Going to Get Yourself Out of the Hole?"

photo credit
This story involves a lot of body movement in it. I pantomime digging a hole. "If you dig down to your ankles, you can easily step out. If you get to your waist, it's a little harder, but it's still doable. You get to your shoulders, well... you'll be climbing. If you get in over your head, hopefully someone is there to help."

The students enjoy seeing me act all of this out. Then I reveal - "Think about this in terms of school. If you choose not to work on something in class, you may need to finish it at home. If you don't do it then, you may have to try to do it during class. It can build up." The metaphor soon turns real. I ask them to apply it to how concepts over time will only get worse if they don't work to become better. Being up to your waist at the end of fourth grade can quickly become over your head at the beginning of fifth if the hole isn't filled in over the summer.

In education nowadays, we have a tendency to not let students fail or experience struggle. Jess Lahey wrote an excellent book about this called The Gift of Failure, which I reviewed in a post last year. We need to let the students struggle and see that things can build up. Give them a shovel and ownership of their hole. They will figure it out.

But make sure they know you will always be there at the top of the hole, reaching down to help them. Kids are not perfect (nor are adults) and they need modeling and guidance. I am always very open and honest with my students when I have dug myself into a hole and how I am working to get out of it. Students will still need to work to get to reach your hand from the side of the hole and to fill in their hole, but they need to know their support system is there to help.

"You Can Only Build a Bridge Halfway"

photo credit
To begin this, I asked the students to think of our classroom as a series of islands. 

Me: "How do you get from one island from another?" 
Class: "You can swim or sail a boat!" 
Me: "True, but you're ruining my metaphor here. You can also build a bridge."

I then go on to say that to build a bridge, each side much build half and meet in the middle or else it will collapse. (To be completely transparent here, I started this story without really knowing if it's true. After a little research, I found out that the arch of the Sydney Harbor Bridge was built from both sides. It may be done for the reason I said, but I'm not an engineer!) 

The moral here is that education needs to be a two way street (or bridge.) Many teachers do a fantastic job of teaching students in an engaging, interactive, and differentiated way, but the students need to have the same level of effort in their desire to learn and work ethic. We need to be equal partners in education or it will all fall apart. Students need to be taught what this means to have strong work ethic and building a bridge. Mini lessons on character and resiliency are a must and we need to be models for this with our students, colleagues, and parents. Furthermore, students should build bridges with each other, whether it be in academics or social skills. It needs to be an equal partnership. What would a classroom community of interconnected islands look like for you?

"We Don't Make Excuses, We Make Changes"

My keynote - note the title
The final story is perhaps the most important one to me. Not only is this our classroom motto, this is my mantra for life. (Even to the extent that I titled my keynote based on this phrase.) After my second year of teaching, I was full of excuses and complaints. I was highly negative and blamed others. I realized this was a waste of time. What could I change to make it better?

This is a message that I feel my students (and many adults) can benefit from. What changes can you make to improve a situation? In the classroom, I constantly challenged my students with this. Rather than saying what another student had done, what could they have done differently?

Role playing, modeling, and concrete examples in read alouds help to reinforce this concept. I often share examples from my own life, especially the time I put off getting my car inspected because "I didn't have time" but then had to get it out of impound for more time and money. Obviously, some situations and circumstances didn't fit this mantra perfectly, but often times I could help the students take ownership of their life and learning by reminding them of our class motto.

All of the stories figured largely into my classroom. Not a single day went by where we didn't mention digging a hole, building a bridge, or making changes. We ended our morning meeting every day by repeating our class motto (video below). Students are our partners in education and need to be held accountable. They are literally our future and need to learn how to be a good person, in addition to all the academic content we're mandated to teach. We need to support them in this character building process, and by living these virtues and mantras, my students became capable, dynamic, and independent young citizens.


  1. I reread your post today, just because it makes me smile! My favorite line is "Give them a shovel and ownership of the hole. They will figure it out." So true! I'm honored to say I've known you since the "early days" and I've watched you soar like an eagle in this profession! Keep on, keeping on! You, and your students, are destined for great things!

    1. You are a #rockstar.

      PS - I'm not sure how this comment reply got skipped. My bad!

  2. It is so inspiring to see someone spending the time to teach their young students these kinds of life lessons. As a high-school teacher, I see the effect of what happens when student's don't grasp these concepts and I commend you for the work you do at building thoughtful, responsible, skilled learners.

    1. Thanks, Bret. I figure that starting them early helps them for their whole life.

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