Flatten the Fold


I am a middle school teacher and school leader. So it goes without saying that I have a bias towards developing the brain during the “tweenage” years, of from about 11 to 15 years old. These years serve as a critical pivot point between growth and fixed mindsets. Those involved with this age group recognize this urgency. Students become more aware of themselves, particularly of their limitations when it comes to pursuing a passion. What they do not often see is that one’s self image during these tweenage years is a snapshot rather than a definition of self. It is as if they are using an old-school paper map to navigate across country, yet they are only working with one tiny, folded square of the entire paper. Schools who recognize the responsibility that exists within a classroom to “flatten out the paper” so students can see across the fold are special, indeed. However, as specialization rips through a young person’s life, from the growing specific content in math class to extracurricular pursuits that require more and more time and dedication in order to stay competitive, the time has come to have a real conversation on what we are doing to our students and where we need to go.

The middle school child faces an internal struggle between the hope for success and the effort it takes to get there. As educators, we aim to bridge this gap by helping students develop a way to:

  1. Define the struggle so them may identify the gap that exists between hopeful destinations and current location;
  2. Strategize how to overcome the gap between where they are and the hopeful destination while appreciating (notice, that is not simply recognizing) the effort required to get there; and
  3. Become willing to fail along the journey, finding the tools and skills to succeed.

A Guide for the Journey

Our mission as educators should always include a method of enhancing the lives of our students by providing them inspiration to pursue their passions. I think this is a lovely, albeit idealistic endeavor. John Dewey once said, “A genuine enthusiasm is an attitude that operates as an intellectual force.” This quote embodies my motivation and philosophy for teaching and now leading middle school children. As students need to develop focus and determination, they cannot run so fast as to lose sight of what they are running on. Teachers have a special opportunity to remind students where to look along the path the avoid the pitfalls that will prevent them from a successful trip.

As Jo Boaler discusses in Mathematical Mindsets, we remind our students of these dangers along the path most often by placign said traps ourselves. The truth is, we must encourage children to make mistakes. After all, earning “A’s” on everything means they know just about everything, right? (Please note the attempt at written sarcasm.) However, making mistakes places a young person in a state of disequilibrium. This state of unbalance forces the brain to find ways to fit outcomes into the initial design (Boaler calls them “mental models”) and thus reprocess and adapt the design to better fit the problem (Boaler, 18–19).

So when their personal map leads them to a roadblock, a student must find a new route. This is a skill in and of itself. But how to teach it? I’d argue that, if we educate our students correctly, we don’t have to. The system in place should account for varied levels of success within the curriculum, and personal development along the route chosen by each child.

My academic environment utilizes a grading system that includes partitioned letter grades (A+ / A / A-). Further, we have stated in writing that a C is average, B is above average, and A is excellent. While we aim for excellence, it is my hope that families learn (through discussion and support of educators) that grades are a measurement of development. We are not excellent in everything we do and at every moment, so we shouldn’t expect our kids to be. The systems we create in schools should reflect this appropriate level of imperfection.

What are your methods of measuring development in your schools? Do you use a tiered grading structure? Perhaps you don’t use grades at all…please share.


Boaler, Jo. (2016). Mathematical Mindsets: Unleashing Students’ POTENTIAL Through Creative Math, Inspiring Messages and INNOVATIVE TEACHING. Jossey-Bass.



Failing Forward

I have written about the power of failure in a post a few months back. As I do more research on how failing impacts the brain, I have come to discover the value in forced failure and the idea that taking on a challenge without preparation (like a pre-test) can prime the brain to better tackle new concepts. Benedict Carey authored an article in the New York Times (link below) describing the idea of failing forward, or the idea that “knowing what you don’t know” up front helps you to focus and fill the gaps in learning as material is presented. Check it out for yourself!

Why Flunking Exams Is Actually a Good Thing

This article was presented in an online course built by Ann Murphy Paul, author of the The Brilliant Blog, called “Turn Testing into Learning”. It’s a wonderful exploration into better assessments for any teacher or principal. Use the link for access to the blog and the online course!

Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.

Self-Image: A Teary Realization

Am I OK?

A friend of mine posted this video on his Facebook feed earlier this week. I found the comments intriguing, so I watched it. With tears brimming over, I smiled my way through the duration of the piece. The way each of these young people present themselves in the video is genuine, inspiring, and impressive.

Often, my heart hurts for today’s young person. This world pressures today’s teen to be something very narrow, and often unattainable. The expectation that you look a certain way, dress a certain way, write a certain way, speak a certain way…

And then you add in pressure norms related to skin color, religion, sexual preference, grades, athletic ability, tech accessories. This list is in no way balanced, but often suffers the same results because a person is seen as different or sees herself as different.

Knowing our young people have to wear masks when facing their peers and the world around them, as the older individuals in the video do, is tragic. I am particularly disheartened by the girl who states that she doesn’t want others to think she is good at something. What kind of a world do we live in that stifles an effort to be excellent? Our young people should want to praise the talents of others as they celebrate our own – this celebration should be second nature. I understand that the adolescent brain is only beginning to discover how to make sense of and respond to (much less, appreciate) differences in the world around them. As demonstrated by Drs. Mamie and Kenneth Clark in their monumental “Doll Experiments” of 1940, individuals begin to identify differences and how the relate to them from as early as four-years old (1). In most cases, the association begins innocently only to develop into a defensive crouch when a child approaches adolescence. So perhaps we are battling a natural inclination to differentiate; but, to allow this inclination to form caustic relationships is the fault of the environment in which we have cultivated for our young people.

Breaking the Cycle

A willow deeply scarred, somebody’s broken heart
And a washed-out dream
They follow the pattern of the wind ya’ see
‘Cause they got no place to be
That’s why I’m starting with me
-Michael Jackson, “Man in the Mirror”

So, where on earth do we begin? To me, it’s the cycle that we must disrupt. As an educator, I must seek out the opportunities to discuss difference with students. This conversation must begin a young age. To be clear, I’m not for unilateral agreement on all things. I recognize and appreciate that people will take a visceral stance on certain perspectives. I also appreciate the fact that some people will be better than others at certain things. But we must teach the art of disagreement and the respect of ability above jealousy and angst to our young people. The video posted shows some of the students accepting their (usually self-imposed) “labels” towards the end. They are even willing to share their personal image on the made-up social network.

So the first step is to identify personal angst and wipe it out. We are all great, based on a divine image, and capable of being excellent – that is the message on which we need to focus. Perhaps this is the most important job of parents and teachers – to celebrate differences. We must gather our young people into a culture of respect and appreciation so that people will be loved for who they are, not singled-out for what they are not.

Teachers and educators are in the business of making young people smile. They smile because of a great effort on a test, quiz or project. They smile because of a great game. The smile because of the way someone makes them feel. They smile because of a silly joke. They smile because they are having fun. They should also smile because of who they are in this world. That is our mission.

God and Learning: The Science of Faith-based Education


Re-posting of the newsletter article that I wrote for our school newsletter:

In the Fall 2015 issue of Independent School Magazine, Dr. Lisa Miller, director of the Clinical Psychology Program at Teachers College (Columbia University), wrote “Education for the Heart and Mind: The Science of Spirituality Informs a New Developmental Model.” The article extends the conversation she began in her book, The Spiritual Child, and celebrates the difference an education program like ours can make as we emphasize spirituality and inspire development of the “sacred self.”

Dr. Miller begins her writing by recognizing the need among all learners “to seek and perceive transcendence.” The word “transcendence” can lead in various directions; however, we will use the word as it applies to self-discovery and learning the answer to “What does it all mean?” When supported, this need to know the answer to greater questions helps galvanize one’s relationship with God. Spirituality is a necessity in the development of a young person, and our school explores this sacred relationship from the very beginning, facilitating and participating in conversations with students about God’s love, His creation, and the work we are called to do.

This connection to faith impacts the middle school student, in particular. During the “tweenage” years, young men and women desperately seek a way to connect the world that requires so much of them to a reason for all the effort. They pursue gratification while realizing, on some level, that nothing of this world can provide it. Utilizing the supportive network of teachers at school, we aim for students to find the road that leads to a better understanding, one that is connected to their faith. This sacred connection allows middle school students to understand their place in the world; young people discover that they are loved unconditionally as students in our school. Further, they quickly discover that they are expected to treat others with the same respect. Upon recognizing this lesson, a young person has significantly less inclination to grasp at attention or acceptance through bad choices; they are appreciated for the unique traits and talents – no action beyond a return of this trust is required. Faith-based education impacts the brain by building self-confidence, calmness, and focus.

Reid, my 2-year-old son, asks, “Why, Daddy?” more than I can count in a day. I adore his sense of wonder. But Dr. Miller postulates that Reid is in search for more than attention. Even at a very young age, the human mind thirsts for fact or reason; from toddler to adolescence, children ask questions to enhance their understanding of the world around them. These inquiries are immeasurable opportunities for personal and academic development.

In middle school, we invest classroom time in discussion- based learning seminars. These seminars allow for students to voice their opinions and debate those of others. Rather than searching for the “right answer” from a teacher, students explore and discover truth on their own terms, building confidence in their knowledge and trust in one another to support them in the search. This pedagogy serves as a platform for understanding just how vast the world can be within the safe comforts of a classroom conversation. Dr. Miller identifies the “teacher-student relationship, small homerooms, school-wide cultural values, nature as an experiential classroom, and the focus on the natural ‘teleology’ of each student” as necessary components to facilitating the sacred self. Your student has found a place that cherishes all these things by joining our middle school family.