Over the last few years of my practice I’ve been increasingly curious as to how I can nurture students to be inspired in their learning, hopeful in their quest to succeed, and to stick with it when the going gets tough. I believe that a student who possesses these 3 traits, inspiration, hope, and perseverance, is one who will be more successful in the world of tomorrow.
I finally feel like I’m making some tremendous strides. Let me tell you how.
I began the course discussing with the class several studies that outline the many benefits of being optimistic.
We read an interview with Dr. Angela Duckworth and her research on how optimism is a better indicator of cadet success in the US Military’s gruelling West Point Academy. Duckworth states that “admission to West Point depends heavily on the Whole Candidate Score, which includes SAT scores, class rank, demonstrated leadership ability, and physical aptitude. Even with such a rigorous admissions process, about 1 in 20 cadets drops out during the summer of training before their first academic year.” Duckworth goes on to share her findings of the power of optimism in other case studies as well.
We then watched a video by Eben Pagan outlining how elite athletes manufacture optimism. That’s right, they literally create optimism even when the odds are stacked up against them. Pagan goes on to share how the physical gifts of the elite athlete are the result of years of small steps that accumulate in to athletic giftedness. He argues that it is the optimistic attitude of the elite athlete that is the largest factor in these small steps being taken each day and that over time the divide between who the athlete once was and currently is vast solely because of their ability to create optimism out of situations where there shouldn’t be any. Pretty cool.
We then discussed a novel that struck me as being quite inspirational. Touching the Void is the true story of Joe Simpson and Simon Yates’ life changing climbing expedition on Peru’s Siula Grande. At one point in their adventure, after poor weather kept them high on the mountain longer than expected, Simpson slipped down an ice cliff and broke his right leg. Yates, undaunted but facing more poor weather, no remaining food or water, and an increasingly weakened mate, decided to lower Simpson down the mountain by way of their remaining climbing rope, a deathly dangerous plan but one that they thought would get them off the mountain quickest. Part way on the descent Simpson became unhitched from his ledge and dangerously dangled off the side of the mountain which forced Yates to support his partner’s entire weight. After doing so for several hours and unable to pull Simpson up to safety Yates unimaginably cut the rope Yates was hanging from surely resulting in his friend’s death and his own survival. Yates miraculously made it back to basecamp and shared his horrific tale with the third member of their party. The two decided to trek back in to the glacier to locate Simpson’s corpse. Over the course of several days they were unable to locate Simpson. Well, that’s because Simpson, with his broken leg and nearing hypothermia, survived the 150 foot fall. Over 3 days and five miles he scurried back to basecamp to the complete shock and surprise of his two friends. In recounting those 3 days Simpson stated that it was an overwhelming sense of optimism and an unwillingness to die that led to his survival.
Once I felt like the group was genuinely behind the power of optimism I shared with them the sadness I felt due to Robin Williams’ passing over our summer break and my favourite Williams’ film, Dead Poet’s Society. I gave them a bit of a summary and we watched a memorable scene from the film. It wasn’t long before they were connecting my passion for the classroom with Williams’ character John Keating. In fact, several of them asked why I hadn’t hopped up on to a desk in class yet.
At this point I read to them Walt Whitman’s O Me! O Life! You see, Williams’ character reads this poem to his students to encourage them to seize the day and live life to its fullest (read: optimism, hope, perseverance). I asked the class to take some time to identify the lines from the poem that are most hopeful, that call the reader to arms, that inspire them the most. Students then shared these words and lines to the class and recorded them on sticky-notes.
For the next day I challenged the class to find another Whitman poem that spoke to them in a similar vein. They all returned to class with poems printed off and lines highlighted or underlined. We further discussed these poems and the lines they selected and went on to record these lines on sticky-notes as well.
I was so impressed with the quality of their evidence (the lines they extracted from the poems) that I felt like they needed to be shared. But how? How could we show others students the power of the poetry we had read and how it had inspired us?
Hence the birth of Esquimalt High School Gorilla Poetry, a spontaneous and anonymous public display of our admiration for poetry. We began by creating an eye-catching portrait of our poet, Walt Whitman. An artistically minded student in the class volunteered to sketch this out and then trace over it in permanent marker in order for it to really visually pop. When he had completed the portrait we stealthy posted it in a high traffic area in the school. We then taped our sticky-notes around the portrait creating a bit of a golden aura of inspirational lines. Immediately after class we quietly observed from a distance as other students walked by our Gorilla Poetry. Some glanced confusingly. Some stopped to have a look. Some stood and read the lines. As the days went by we knew we had done something special. Throughout the various breaks in the school day we all witnessed students checking out our work. And we were hooked. We wanted to do more.
Since our first Walt Whitman experiment we’ve completed two more acts of Gorilla Poetry, one on Maya Angleou and one on Shane Koyczan. Both were extremely rewarding but the Shane Koyczan product is worth going in to greater detail.
We selected Koyczan for a number of reasons. We wanted someone Canadian. We wanted someone from the world in which we live. And we wanted someone rad. Koyzcan, of course, is all 3.
While I was away at a conference a good friend and colleague led the class through some of Koyczan’s work. They began by watching a Koyczan performance that resonated with the Mr. Skinner, my colleague (see below). He shared with them how Koyczan’s words touched his heart, how the performance left an impression on him, and how many of the lines are amazingly both sad and uplifting. The class was challenged to go home and come in to class tomorrow with their own Koyzcan performance that spoke to them on the inspirational level we have been looking for.
As with the Whitman piece the students did not disappoint. The class spent much of the next day watching the videos they discovered as they shared how each one spoke to them on a personal level. Students literally ran the show. Some students stood up next to the LCD projector and paused the video to elaborate on the slam poem they chose. Some students provided commentary from their seats. Some students gave a synopsis after the video concluded. It was an awesome display of students being engaged to the point that the teacher was pointless.
Everyone got so wrapped up in sharing that we didn’t get a chance to complete the artwork. Mr. Skinner took it upon himself to get the poster drawn and the next day we secretly posted the portrait in the halls again. What happened over the next 24 hours was amazing. Shane Koyczan himself retweeted our work and our Gorilla Poetry went viral. On Monday morning I was able to share with them the impact of their beautiful work and how they’re inspirational lines had obviously inspired others. It was one of those teachable moments you couldn’t have planned out if you tried.
Talking with students about these powerful ideas and sharing real life examples of inspiration, hope, and perseverance at work is one piece of the puzzle. Over the past few years I feel as though my practice has holistically transformed towards a place where these characteristics are at the heart of our classroom and our learning. Inquiry-Based Learning, empowering students through voice and choice, helping them create meaningful and authentic work, providing descriptive feedback, giving support and advice in perceived moments of “failure”, and celebrating revision, reworking, and second, third, and fourth efforts all come to mind when reflecting on my teaching. It’s a pretty exciting place to be in and Im increasingly thankful to those people who have inspired me to live life to its fullest. Carpe diem y’all.