The new school year is not far away. Teachers are thinking about their first day. Innovative teachers are thinking “How can I start of this year differently? How can I truly start to shift the learning experience? How will my class this year be more focused on the critical skills we need our students to learn?” Here is an idea. It lies at the absolute foundation of all that we have been discussing and learning together about how and why students become engaged and passionate about learning. It lies at the heart of students taking control of their own learning, rather than acting as receptacle for teachers. And it works for all age groups.
Following is a big hunk of Step -1 (that’s right; negative one): Who Do I Want To Be? from my book, The Falconer. I was going to summarize it, but what the heck, I like it just the way it is. If you like it, maybe you will click over to the right of this blog home page and read the book intro, and maybe download The Falconer. There are a series of lessons like this on asking questions, finding problems, solving problems, solving really hard problems, and creating elegant solutions, all in this simple story form that you can use with your students.
Tweet and copy this out to your colleagues, and let’s all start the new school year with our students thinking deeply about just what the heck they are doing spending the next nine months in our classrooms!
The Lesson of Heroes
In our mythical little valley, the school year starts the first week of September, when the days are still long and hot, and it feels as if summer will never end. I’m sure it’s the same for you each year; you get that tingling of sadness that another summer vacation is gone, mixed with excitement about seeing your friends in school again. Each year, back we go, though it always seems to take a few weeks, and maybe an autumn rain or two, before all of the students stop gazing out the window in the middle of the day, wishing they were back fishing by a lazy creek or playing baseball in the evening after supper.
The year Mr. Usher came to his school September was a glorious splash of warm days and still evenings. The big old oak tree in the schoolyard was so full of acorns that the squirrels couldn’t begin to hide all of them away before winter. The school gardener had cut the grass in the schoolyard the day before class started, and the neat lawn made the whole school smell like the middle of July. The sun still rises early in September in the valley, and the grass was dry of dew by the time the children came running into the yard on that first day of class.
When the morning bell rang, the students all lined up in front of their classes, just as they did every day for every class. The Children looked nervously down the hall towards the school office. Just as the line was filled, around the corner came a new teacher, and all of the Children knew that this must be Mr. Usher.
Mr. Usher was tall and thin and had a full head of gray hair. He wore a checkered shirt, a plain blue tie, and a worn, comfortable-looking jacket. His glasses rode low on his nose as if they might fall off at any moment. He wasn’t too young and wasn’t too old. As Mr. Usher approached the head of the line, the first students started to walk into the classroom. Mr. Usher raised his hand and stopped them.
“It’s such a beautiful morning, why not stay outside for a while?” he asked, looking over the students in their line. “Let’s all sit down over there under the big oak tree and let summer last another few minutes, shall we?”
The Children didn’t know what to make of that. They’d never heard of a teacher wanting to make summer last any longer, and certainly the other teachers didn’t send students out to the schoolyard on the morning of the first day of school. But Mr. Usher walked off towards the big oak tree without looking back, so the Children followed, still more or less lined up. In a few minutes, the Children and Mr. Usher were all seated on the cool grass under the big oak tree, and for once the squirrels stopped their busy chatter, and the robins sat quietly in the high branches or flew off to look for worms in the field out beyond the schoolyard fence.
“First things first,” said Mr. Usher. “I’m Mr. Usher, though I imagine you all guessed that. Now I need to know who is who among you.” So they went around the circle, each student saying his or her name, and Mr. Usher repeated each name under his breath. Soon Mr. Usher knew almost all of the Children’s names, though as happens in any new class, I imagine he was still making mistakes for the next few days.
“Welcome to the new school year to all of you,” Mr. Usher began. “As you know, I’m new at the school, so I’m sure I have a lot to learn this year, just like you. For a teacher, deciding what to teach, and how, is not as easy as some of you might think. So if you don’t mind, I’d like a little bit of help.”
Several of the students looked across the circle at each other with their faces screwed up in confusion. Usually on the first day of school, the teachers told the students what they were going to study during the year. This new teacher was asking them to help him decide what to teach. But no one raised a hand to ask Mr. Usher why he needed their help; perhaps because it was the first day of school and all of the Children were a little shy of the tall stranger.
Mr. Usher took a large pad of notepaper out from under his loose jacket and leaned back against the old oak tree. “I want each of you to think of at least one person who you really respect, someone you admire. It can be a real person, or a pretend person, like someone in a story or a movie. It can be someone you know, like a friend or a sister, or someone you don’t. This person can be alive or dead. It doesn’t matter. I want to know who it is and why you admire this person. Let’s all take a few minutes and think about it.” And with that, Mr. Usher leaned farther back against the dry bark of the oak tree and began to doodle on his notepad.
The Children all looked at each other and hunched up their shoulders, and no one said a word. It was, after all, a rather unusual request and didn’t seem to have anything to do with helping Mr. Usher decide what to teach them that year. A few of the Children whispered to each other, and finally Morgan timidly raised her hand, wondering if Mr. Usher would see it.
“Yes, Morgan, what is it?” asked Mr. Usher, so quickly that you would have thought he was looking right at her over the top of his glasses even before she had raised her hand.
“Excuse me, but I was just wondering, is it all right if we talk to each other about this? Maybe it will help some of us remember who the people are that are important to us.”
Mr. Usher smiled at Morgan and then around at all of the Children. “First of all, Morgan, you never have to excuse yourself for asking a question in my class. Rule Number One in my class is that questions are much more important than answers. And yes, of course you may talk about it with each other. Rule Number Two is that anything worth knowing is certainly worth talking about.” Mr. Usher smiled again at the Children and went back to doodling on his notepad.
The Children put their heads together in groups of threes and fours and talked quietly for a few minutes sharing ideas and asking each other who they respected or admired and why. After a while the group grew quiet and still, and Mr. Usher looked up from his notepad.
“Let’s start at this side of the circle,” he said, pointing to his right. “Tell us, Andy, who is it that you respect or admire, and why?”
“Well, last year we studied about a person who tried to fly all the way around the world before any other woman had done it. She didn’t make it and no one knows what happened to her, but I want to be a pilot when I grow up, so I guess I admire her. Her name was Amelia Earhart.”
“Oh, yes, a very fine choice,” smiled Mr. Usher. “And what exactly is it about Amelia Earhart that you admire, other than the fact that she was a pilot? There are many pilots in the world. What is it that makes you think of her as being particularly special?”
Andy frowned and thought for a minute. “Everyone thought she couldn’t do it, but she wanted to try something really hard. Even if she didn’t make it all the way around the world, she gave it her best try. She believed in herself.”
Mr. Usher nodded his head slowly, thinking about what Andy had said. “So you admire her for her self-confidence, is that it?” Mr. Usher asked.
“That’s the word I was looking for, self-confidence,” said Andy. “That’s what I meant when I said Amelia Earhart believed in herself.”
Mr. Usher took out a pencil and wrote for a moment on his pad, then looked up at the next student in the circle and raised his eyebrows.
“I respect my father,” said Felisa. “It’s not just because I love him and he loves me. He’s just so helpful whenever I need something. It’s not like he does all my work for me or anything like that, but when I need help he’s always there, and I think helping other people is very important.”
Mr. Usher nodded and wrote on his note pad, and then waved at the next student in line to take his turn. And so they went around the circle until each of the Children had told Mr. Usher whom it was that they respected or admired and why, and all the while Mr. Usher took notes on his pad and smiled at each Child in turn. Finally, when they were all finished, Mr. Usher stood up slowly, pressing his hand against his back as if it hurt him to sit on the grass for so long, and brushed a few brown oak leaves off of his pants.
“Now we’re ready to start the school year,” Mr. Usher said. “Let’s go to class.”
When all of the students were sitting quietly at their desks, Mr. Usher went up to the long blackboard in the front of the room and took out his notepad. With a fresh piece of chalk, he copied down what was on his pad, and this is what just part of the list looked like:
People I Admire Why
Amelia Earhart Confidence
My father Helpful
Abraham Lincoln Vision
My cousin Benny Happy and fun loving
My mother Loving and caring
Martin Luther King Stood up for what he believed
Ms. Krenna, the music teacher Creative
My friend Penelope Fair
My grandpa Jack Patient
When he had finished with the entire list, Mr. Usher blew the chalk dust off of his hands and walked around to the front of the big wooden teacher’s desk. He sat on the corner and looked over the top of his glasses at the Children.
“What a marvelous list of people you’ve made!” said Mr. Usher, smiling. “I can see exactly why you admire and respect them all. Now let me ask all of you a question. How many of you want to be like some of these people when you grow up? Do you want to be admired for the same reasons you admire these people?”
In a flash, nearly every student in the class raised his or her hand, and the few who didn’t were still thinking carefully and studying the list on the board.
“Well, then,” said Mr. Usher slowly, “you’ve just helped me decide what I’m going to teach you this year. I’m going to try to teach you to be self-confident, helpful, visionary, caring, creative, fair, courageous, patient, and all of the other things on the list. And since you all want to learn to be like these people, I don’t imagine we’ll have any arguments about our class work all year long. Any questions?”
Mr. Usher sat on the front of his big wooden desk with his arms folded and looked at the Children, and they sat at their desks and looked back at him, puzzled. Finally, Felisa threw up her arm.
“Aren’t you going to teach us math and science and history and reading and writing and all of the things the other kids learn?” she asked worriedly. “How are we supposed to get smart if you don’t teach us any of that?”
“Well,” said Mr. Usher, with a little smile, “I was going to ask you if being smart and knowing a lot was something you admired, because it isn’t anywhere on the list you gave me. Now that you mention it, yes, of course, I’m going to teach you math and science and history and all of the rest. Those are some of the tools we all need to become like the people we admire and respect. But we have to remember that knowledge is just one of our tools. If we want to grow up to be like people we admire, we have to learn much more than math and science and history.”
Just about then the bell for recess rang outside the door, and the Children jumped up from their desks and began to file out the door to the playground. Mr. Usher remained seated on the front of his big desk and watched them go. As the other Children rushed out, Casey came up to Mr. Usher.
“Mr. Usher, I think you would have taught those things to us anyway, even if we hadn’t come up with our own list,” Casey said. “Am I right?”
Mr. Usher crossed his arms and smiled down at Casey. “Well,” said Mr. Usher with a little chuckle, “you were all so helpful, we’ll just never know, will we?” And with that, Mr. Usher gently turned Casey around and pushed him toward the door.
That recess the Children talked together and with their friends in other classes about Mr. Usher and their strange first morning of the school year. It wasn’t the last time that the Children sat together under the old oak tree and talked with Mr. Usher, nor was it the last time that this new teacher surprised his students with new ideas about what were the truly important things they might learn in school.