My life has been blessed in multiple ways. I am married to my best friend and I have what I consider to be the best job on the planet. The biggest blessings in my life are my three children Stefan, Caroline and Max. I am in the unique position to have had a child in my 20’s, one in my 30’s and one in my late 40's. Children are the best thing and the hardest thing. They fire your passion and pride while teaching you lessons in humility. Nothing makes you more vulnerable than having a piece of your heart walking around in this big ole world!
Although all three of my children have taught me a variety of lessons, I am going to focus the latest lessons from the one that is currently living under my roof, Max. Max is two and a half and could be the poster child for what people describe as, “all boy.” To say he is “all boy” really under sells his true energized spirit. When he enters a room, the wild rumpus begins! He explores the world like a metal head in a mosh pit. He is very loving, but sometimes loving him is painful. Hugs can feel like a strangle hold applied by a MMA master. Kisses can result in a bloody lip. He can destroy a room in seconds. If you are picturing the Tasmanian Devil, you have the right idea. I know you might be thinking, that’s just my skewed view because I am his father. Further evidence about his personality can be seen in the nicknames the teachers at his day school have given him over the two years he has been there. He holds several descriptive titles including, Grain of Gold, The Little Prince, Big Pappa and The Alpha Male. Sometimes, his mother and I think we may have cursed him by referring to him as “Mowgli” before he was born.
Before you start to think that he is beyond hope, let me celebrate the other traits he has. Max has passion for life. He is inquisitive beyond measure. Currently his two favorite sentences are, “What’s that?” and “What’s his name?” He is acquiring language at a logarithmic rate. He is strong, fast, and fearless. He is curious, creative and loves to help. I find that he is perfect in his imperfection. But what he is best at is teaching me what the love of learning looks like. If you want to see what engagement looks like, watch Max at play. He is an explorer. He likes to take things apart to see how they are put together. He adapts his toys to do things they are not designed to do. An example of this is how he plays with his water table. His table is designed with a water wheel, a slide for figurines and even a working diving board. He rarely uses it as it is designed. Instead, he pulls it apart and finds a variety of things to put in it from the back yard. Rocks, dirt, my shoes and Max himself are all potential playthings to go into the water.
Max Learning Lesson #1 – Provide open ended experiences and allow students to explore. Let’s stop valuing the ability of students to simply follow a recipe or fill in the blank with a correct answer. Let go of the ideal and instead provide the opportunity to let their curiosity (choice) lead them to learning. Until students own their learning, school experiences will lack the deep level of engagement we seek. I am always fascinated about what Max finds to spark his curiosity. When we take him to the zoo instead of amazement at the elephants, his biggest interest is the fencing, hinges and climbing on the benches. On a family trip to a strawberry farm, Max finds the biggest joy in playing with a stressed caterpillar that is regurgitating its breakfast on his arm.
Max Learning Lesson #2 – Focus more on the process than the product. Let’s stop valuing what our students create for the way it appears without consideration of the independent work that went into it. Reduce the amount of help you give and instead focus on celebrating their individual effort. If Max wants to mix the colors of Play Doh, that’s OK. If his Valentine heart sponge stamp looks more like a cabbage head, that’s OK.
Max Learning Lesson #3 –Provide for variety and movement. Few of us as adults can sit for 5 hours of a 7 hour school day without resentment. Yet this is not an uncommon expectation for our secondary students. If Max wants to stand while watching Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, that’s OK. If he wants to escape from the stroller and take a detour while we are out walking the dog, that’s OK. One of the best strategies for Max or any busy child is to give them a mission that involves physical activity.
Max Learning Lesson #4 - Mind your words. What we say and how we say it has a huge impact on how students see themselves. Last fall we were at one of the gym type facilities that caters to small children. When it was time to clean up, Max modified the activity to be more engaging and challenging. He picked up and carried the toys in his mouth and then practiced his bombardier skills by carefully taking aim as he dropped them into the bucket while on his tippy toes. The teacher responded to his unique approach in a tone that was dripping with sarcasm, “Well that’s creative!” Now don’t get me wrong, I understand that this behavior might be a public health hazard and socially unacceptable for an older child. My issue was with the use of sarcasm. The teacher is very fortunate that Max is not developmentally advanced enough to understand the slight. What I wanted to do was to channel my inner Liam Neeson and say:
Instead, we took our business to a different gym facility where his current "rock star" teacher, “Ms. G.G.” celebrates his high octane approach to every activity. A great teacher makes all the difference!
As the product of public schools, I know that what our kids are getting today in my school is better than what came before. With that said, we still have a long way to go. We must find ways to shift away from what Sir Ken Robinson describes as the current "factory model" in place today. I want a school culture that allows Max to be fully alive. One that recognizes his strengths and sharpens his edges rather than grind them down into compliance. I want a classroom environment that celebrates creativity over conformity. As his dad, how could I want less? As the principal of 1,200 souls, I want the same for my students. As their “school dad,” how could I want less? I assure you that it is my great passion to do this work for kids. Slowly but surely, patiently but passionately, I am committed to providing personalized learning for all. Max deserves it. All our kids deserve it.