Monthly Archives: March 2014

Commencement thoughts for new beginnings

As schools all over begin the home stretch, we begin to think of graduations and the prospect of sending our seniors out into the big, wide, world. So much focus and energy has been placed on the academic end of their education, and rightfully so. But before they go, it is also right that we should remind them of the other education they have hopefully been receiving, the life lessons countless teachers, and parents, and loved ones have imparted along the way.
I get the chance to say a few parting words at graduation each year, and it is my hope that I am at least reminding the students of those lessons they picked up along the way. As I prepare for yet another sending off, I thought I’d share the bullet points from last year’s address. A reminder that we don’t just teach them academics, it’s our high calling to teach them how to live lives that make a difference.

One: Love Others.
Decide today that you will serve a cause greater than yourselves – That you will give something back, that you will seek significance not in what you take or make or amass, but in what you do to make the world a better place.
While there are certainly countless examples of people in history who will be remembered for their wealth, what history remembers most are those who use that wealth to do Good in the world.
Two: Learn from your mistakes, but never be afraid to make them by trying something new.
Perhaps one of the most disturbing things about formal education to me is the fact that all of our focus on grades can sometimes teach students to take the safe road, and shy away from anything risky in order to make the grade. Don’t let your life experience up to this point teach you to fear failure so much you fail to try.
Three: Take responsibility for your actions, and always be willing to seek forgiveness.
Our mistakes cannot define us unless we let them. When we take responsibility for our wrongdoing and honestly seek to correct the issue and do what it takes to avoid repeating the mistake, this begins to define us as people of character. Our mistakes do not define us, what we do with them defines us. When you admit you’re wrong and seek forgiveness, honestly working to change whatever it is you need to change and make things right, you begin to build a life of character, and when you build a life of character, you build a life worth living.
Four: Be willing to forgive.
I think the difference between justice and mercy is simply this: When we wrong others we want mercy, but when we are wronged, we tend to want justice. . Somebody once told me, “Holding on to hatred and refusing to forgive someone is like eating rat poison and expecting the rat to die.” Holding on to bitterness, seeking revenge, being unwilling to forgive will eat at you like a cancer and destroy you from the inside out, and the worst part is, all your anger and bitterness usually doesn’t affect the person you’re upset with at all.
Five: Never forget to love, laugh, and play.
Life is way too short to not have fun. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:
“To laugh often and much;
To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children;
To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends;
To appreciate beauty,
To find the best in others,
To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition;
To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.
This is to have succeeded.”

For every educator who has invested in the lives of kids, may your efforts bear much fruit.

I Can’t Understand Poverty

 Picture I can’t understand poverty.  It will never make sense to me.  I have some knowledge of poverty.  I’ve waded around in it, building houses for people in the sprawling mass of cardboard and tar-paper shacks that roll on as far as the eye can see over the hills outside Tijuana, Mexico.  I’ve poked around the edges of it in little villages of smiling, toothless farmers in central Baja California, or snapped photos of it from a speedboat skimming past stick huts lining the river in Cambodia.  I’ve wandered through the seedy back allies of Malaysia, Indonesia, and China.  I’ve seen some poverty first-hand and up close.  But I’ll never understand it, not the way those living it understand it.

I could try, I suppose.  I could drop everything and go live among those on the shores of the river or in the back ally, or in the parched valleys of Baja or fetid sea of shacks in Tijuana, but even then I know I could never understand poverty.  Even then, there would be the ever-present reality in the back of my mind that my sojourn into close proximity with and assimilation to the impoverished was just one decision away from escape.  I could always return to my safe, comfortable, middle class reality.

I can’t understand what it must be like to be born into a poverty that is inescapable, a state of being that is just what it is, with no hope of rising up and making a better life, or any real sense that there even is a better life.  What must it be like to never even aspire for lofty things such as clean, running water, or a steady supply of food?  Let alone to dream, all misty eyed of such luxuries as electricity and basic, sanitation or medical care.   I can’t understand the reality of geographic incarceration, a destiny to journey from birth to death never traveling more than a day’s walk from home.  I can’t understand childhood swept away to the daily grind of menial labor by age four.

I can’t understand poverty, but I’ve had a chance to visit with it from time to time.  What troubles me most, however, is not the ugly, soul-wrenching devastation of humanity associated with poverty.  It is not the visceral churning images of the vacant eyed, belly-distended, skin stretched over bones children in Africa.  It’s the haunting images of smiling faces, reverberating sounds of laughter and song, and whistling workers.  It’s the taste of shared meals offered despite the meager means.  It’s the contentment in the eyes of some of the poorest people I have had the opportunity to meet in my various, fleeting brushes with poverty.  That’s what troubles me most.

It troubles me when I find myself, wallowing in why me’s that spring from the constant proximity to abundance, rather than the why me’s of real need.  The smiling faces of poverty point bony fingers in accusation each time I worry over first-world problems and fret about how to spend the relative wealth I have been blessed with.  It troubles me that the only difference between me and countless people living in poverty simply comes down to where I was born and to whom I was born.  But more than that, it troubles me that I am so often discontent in my abundance, and so many with so much less are so often so much more generous and content with where they are and what they have.  I can’t understand poverty, but somehow, I think it may be teaching me something I need to know about me.

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Curiosity killed the cat, but inspired the innovators

For a teacher, nothing is more important than encouraging students toward intellectual curiosity and creative output.  Anatole France stated, “The whole art of teaching is only the art of awakening the natural curiosity of young minds for the purpose of satisfying it afterwards.”  It is this awakening of curiosity that the master teacher strives for each day as he or she interacts with students and colleagues.  The challenge for teachers and students alike is to  find ways to feed their natural curiosity and engage in the exhilaration of digging beneath the academic surface.  Teachers need to inspire students to be more than just passive recipients who take in and regurgitate information.  They must encourage students to let their curiosity and intellectual or creative passions carry them  forward as they  develop a love for meaningful, lifelong learning and growth.

Tony Wagner, author of “Creating Innovators,” writes:

“When information is ubiquitous and free, and when basic education is available to billions of people worldwide, only one set of skills can ensure this generation’s economic future – the capacity for innovation.”

In his book, Wagner explores the lives and upbringing of many young innovators as well as the impact of innovative learning models such as MIT’s Media Lab, and Stanford’s Design School.  Through this exploration, Wagner identifies the elements of play, passion, and purpose as the forces that drive young innovators today.

With academic testing increasingly dominating the educational  process and the end goal for most students, parents, and politicians being college admission to a “Top tier” University, is it any wonder that so many students sacrifice their intellectual curiosity in exchange for playing the game. Rather than intellectual curiosity,  earning top marks in multiple advanced courses and higher and higher scores on standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT becomes the goal.   Beyond this pressure to perform on traditional academic measures is also the widespread demise of vocational education programs and deep spending cuts on arts education.  Not so long ago, most students had the opportunity to experience the thrill of actually making things in school.  Cookies were cooked and garments stitched in home economics classes, birdhouses and cutting boards constructed in woodshops.  Students learned to weld and fix engines, and grow things.  For far too many students, these endeavors have been deemed unnecessary and have been eliminated from schools altogether.

At this same time, the outlets for creativity and the ability for individuals to tap into their creativity and share it with the world has, perhaps, never been more accessible.  Tech tools once only available at high price to large manufacturing entities are increasingly available to the average Joe.  Funding options through online connections such  as Kickstarter, etc. leverage both capital and exposure for the small entrepreneur.  I’ve heard it said that the world outside of education is changing about 100 times faster than the world inside the school walls.  This has to change.

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, 82 % of innovations are created by people in their 30’s and 40’s, and the age distribution has been shifting over time, with the mean age of great achievement rising by five or six years per century.  According to their White Paper titled, Great Inventions Come Later in Life,  One possible explanation for this age shift is a decline in the productivity of younger innovators in favor of older innovators. The report supposes that  “It may well be that the younger innovators are devoting themselves to an increasing amount of education and training.”

Perhaps Anatole France was only partially right.  Certainly the art of teaching centers on the art of awakening the natural curiosity of young minds, but who says they have to satisfy this curiosity afterwards?  It’s time schools began to find meaningful ways for students to apply their curiosity today, and rediscover the joy of applying play, passion, and purpose to their schooling.

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