Education is not a preparation for life but is life itself. - John Dewey

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Meditations on Creativity and Risk

Last night, I attended the Richmond Symphony performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D Major.  What a tremendous emotional journey!  I will spare you my pedestrian music review (suffice it to say that I was transported and loved every note), but I would like to share some of my thoughts following the performance. 

When this piece premiered, it received overwhelmingly negative criticism and boos from the audience.  Now, it is one of the most frequently performed symphonies around the world.  In his day, Mahler was seen as a great conductor but a failed composer – and yet in our day, he is celebrated as one of our finest composers.

How did Gustav Mahler continue to compose despite negative criticism and discouragement?  Where does one find the will to create in an unsupportive environment? 

Obviously, creativity and expression require risk and vulnerability.  History is littered with great innovators who were underappreciated, discouraged, or ridiculed by those around them.  Some survived to be recognized for their achievements.  Others died with no acclaim.  

How do we, as educators, encourage students to take these necessary risks, to be open to mistakes and criticism, to learn and grow?  How do we develop a student’s inner strength and confidence – the ability to see past initial failure or to see beyond perceived failure?

A dear friend once gave me some advice as I was preparing for a recital.  I was telling him about my terrible performance anxiety and how I fall apart in front of an audience – hitting the wrong notes, messing up the tempo, etc.  He told me, “Whenever I hit a wrong note, I do it with confidence.  I go with it – maybe even hitting it wrong again on purpose.” 

Now I certainly don’t have his sense of panache, but he helped me see that my fear of failure was more powerful than the actual mistake.  The truth of the moment was not in the wrong note but in my response to the wrong note.  Could I celebrate the mistake and get past it? 

Fear can stop us from moving forward, from learning a skill, mastering a concept, or sharing a talent.  What if nobody likes it?  What if I mess up?  What if I get the answer wrong?  What if someone laughs at me?

Mahler was definitely affected by the negative criticism surrounding him (he completely reworked his first symphony only to have the next version meet the same disappointing reaction), but he chose to honor his inner voice rather than the tastes of his audience.   Mahler’s biographer Henry-Louis de La Grange writes that “the emotions [Mahler] needed to express were so overpowering that he was not much concerned with his future listeners’ reactions.”  I am thankful that Mahler persevered.  

I do not want my students to let their fears block their growth.  I want to encourage determination and inner strength by providing a learning community that is a safe space to risk innovation.  To embrace mistakes with confidence.  To develop an inner voice that can guide through obstacle and opposition.

In life, there will be wrong answers.  There will be mistakes.  There will be times when our hard work and personal expressions are met with boos and negativity.  We cannot let this stop us from sharing our voice and our gifts.

Thank you, Gustav Mahler, for your tenacity and courage.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Fact Checking

“So my friend who goes to that school said that it’s true.  So it’s not an opinion, it’s a fact.”

Ah, the tricky work of sorting fact from opinion.  I recently asked our 8th graders to research facts about the various high school specialty centers in the Richmond area.  Despite an abundance of accurate information from reliable sources on the Internet, some students wanted to report opinion and gossip from neighbors and friends rather than fact, usually followed by a chorus of “Well, what I heard was …”

In middle school, students are very attuned to what other people think – about themselves and each other.  This is a time for them to cull through the deluge of peer, media, and family beliefs to find what fits and what doesn’t, trying on different attitudes and identities.  This exploration is essential.

However during this time, the distinction between opinion and fact can blur.  Parents and teachers have a responsibility to gently question student assumptions that are based on opinion and prompt them to find reliable sources for information – a critical process when students are dealing with peer relationships, sexuality, drugs, and alcohol. 

Am I saying that we should disregard opinion?  Absolutely not.  Trusted counsel from friends, older siblings, neighbors, or professionals is a valid way to gather information.  However, parents and educators have a responsibility to teach our children to fact check:  Is this person/website/program a reliable source of information?  Where did they get this information?  How can you double check the information?  Parents must send a strong, unequivocal message to “come to me first” about issues relating to drugs, alcohol, and sex in order to mitigate the flow of misinformation.

In my high school transition work with the 8th graders, I emphasize that the opinion of friends can portray a sense of the culture of a school but that they must recognize opinion for what it is:  the outlook and reflection of one individual.  Additionally, interview admissions directors, research statistics, and talk to a variety of people to get a fuller picture of a school.

As we look forward to October, parents and students will have ample opportunity for gathering opinions and facts about the various high schools in the area.  This is the season for open houses, information sessions, and tours.  A perfect time for fact checking.

Friday, September 7, 2012


This is forming time in the classroom. 

This is the time for the teacher to establish expectations and a rhythm to the day, to learn the nuances of the students – when to support, when to challenge – and to tinker with how to guide exploration and discovery. 

This is the time for students to consider, “Who am I in this group?  What do I bring to the class?  How am I part of the whole?  Do I fit in here?” 

This is the time for the teacher to provide leadership and guidance with clear boundaries, warmth, and care – providing a safe, comfortable environment for the students so they can take the social risks necessary for joining with others.

Vulnerability.  Guidance.  Authenticity.  Acceptance.  Trust.

This is essential work – primary, grounding. 

Until the beginning of October, I try to avoid interrupting the flow of the classroom.  I may visit a few classes where I have deep, comfortable relationships with students – students who may need a reassuring word, smile, or hug.  But I try to leave the teacher and students to their dance of relationship and group identity.  To form as a group.

When we allow this to occur, when we allow a space for students and teacher to join together, something magical happens.  The group becomes dynamic, flexible, and strong – able to work through conflict and strife during the school year, capable of deep growth and progress.

The group transforms from a collection of individuals to an entity. 

The whole becomes more than the sum of its parts.