Getting better, one day at a time

Sep 18 2020

Getting better, one day at a time

“When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.”
–Jacob Riis

Sometimes at afternoon pickup when we ask students how their day went, they will offer something more than the perfunctory “fine.” They will exclaim “Great!” and recount something that interested or entertained them. Other times, they may appear glum, mumble “Not so good” and describe an event that disappointed them.

As adults, we know that “one swallow does not make a summer” nor does one bad day spell permanent doom: however, this kind of perspective usually comes with age and lived experience. So, how do we help children maintain the big picture and not become down when they’ve had a bad day?

Perhaps one method comes from a classic of children’s literature. One of the favorite books in our household was Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. For those who have not read it aloud a thousand times, this story by Judith Viorst describes a boy’s very frustrating and infuriating day. Often in our house when one of our children was downcast, we would recite a line from the book, “Some days are like that, even in Australia” to help them remember that in life, we all have good days and we will have bad days.

Why am I bringing this up now? Because like many other schools, Keystone has embarked on an educational experiment with concurrent learning. For more than 70 years, Keystone has excelled at educating children in person; for the past few months, we have worked mightily to provide a strong distance learning program. However, now we’re entering uncharted territory by simultaneously teaching children who are with us face-to-face and children who are attending class from the comfort of their own home.

This type of learning experience has rarely been attempted, much less found to be successful. Teachers ask themselves: How do I divide my time between the students who are in front of me and those who are in class via Zoom? How do I ensure that everyone is engaged or that I answer everyone’s questions? How do I give every student what she deserves?

Keystone teachers commit themselves to all of their children, so the idea that they might shortchange any of them saddens and frustrates them. Then there are the inevitable and unpredictable tech glitches that get in the way. Similarly, Keystone students and parents care deeply about their education. Children want to participate in class discussions and dive into debates. Here again, though, will someone miss something said in class or at home? Will there be some nuance in tone or body language that doesn’t come through over the computer? Will a concept remain unclear? These situations can also create uncertainty and apprehension.

So, how do we proceed in this ambiguous time? A riff on a concept from writer and speaker Jim Collins’s book Great by Choice may provide solace and guidance. Collins recalls the race to the South Pole between Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott. Amundsen’s team made it to the pole and back successfully while everyone on Scott’s team died in their failed attempt thirty miles short of their goal.

Although Scott and his compatriots marched differing amounts on various days, Amundsen’s team trudged 20 miles no matter the weather. On bad days, they struggled to reach their required 20 miles; on beautiful days, they would make their 20 days and stop. They were unwavering in their approach regardless of the conditions. They had a “fanatic discipline” to their daily tasks.

Closer to San Antonio, our hometown Spurs are known for their culture of always working to improve, using the above quote from Jacob Riis as inspiration and boiling it down to the simple mantra of “pounding the rock.”

Maybe the lesson for our students is to show up every day, put in the effort, and do their best. Some days will go well, and some will not. However, each day they will arrive at school, whether in person or at home, prepared to do their all and engage in as much learning as they can. At the close of the day, they can leave satisfied that they tried their hardest, and they marched their 20 metaphorical miles or they pounded their rock for the day.

Concurrent learning will present unforeseen challenges for all of us. It’s an entirely new venture, and as with all experiments, there will be successes and stumbles along the way. Everyday, we will learn something, and we will modify our practice to make the next day even better. If we all work to do our best and do a little better every day, we will create a successful year even in this difficult time.

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