The Power of Play

Tops Mom and DaughterOur work at Boston Children’s Museum has taken us well beyond our walls, into our local community and even to schools and afterschools across New England and around the United States. Through professional development workshops and visits to afterschool programs that we have conducted across the country, it has become increasingly clear that there is a growing issue facing our children; what I am calling a “resiliency gap.” We hear a lot about a series of disparities that impact children and families – the income gap, the digital divide, learning gaps…all things that require more: more money, more resources, more infrastructure, more time. But an ever-increasing divide (and one that cuts across all income lines), is a deficiency that requires not more of us as caring adults, but less…and that is a growing gap in resiliency, what used to be called “stick-to-itiveness.”

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Reflecting on Failure and Success: Guest Blog

Part of our professional learning plan includes two book studies around the social/emotional and behavioral learning of students.  The following reflection was written by one of our county’s school psychologists, Janet Armil, after participating in one such event.

The Takeaway from Paul Tough’s

How Children Succeed:  Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character


guest blog entry by

Janet L. Armil, School Psychologist


I joined this Book Study because weeks before it was announced, I had volunteered to discuss persistence with a group of parents who bring their children to Saturday School, a positive, voluntary, pearl of a Tier 2 intervention offering drop-in one-to-one tutoring to any BPS student in any subject area or need for two hours most Saturdays during the school year.  I knew from my teaching days that drive and persistence contributed more to academic success than IQ, and had even presented that concept to a gym-full of elementary school parents in my nervy first year as a school psychologist, but I knew I needed to research this topic again, and find a good resource.  So, when I received the last call for this Book Study, I signed up, hoping it would help.  I got so much more than a resource:  I got a life-changing understanding of phenomena I had observed as a school psychologist for which I had formulated only the most rudimentary explanations.  This Book Study gave me a growth experience, not a reading selection.

Here is the takeaway:

The ACE study, brought to life:  Adverse childhood experiences form your life path, right down to your adult health.  Ever feel the pain of offering a troubled 15-year-old everything you’ve got while watching him/her slip away despite both of your best efforts to engage and make good?

High L-G parenting, or an ounce of prevention:  Teaching parents at risk how to develop attachment with their infants is step one in reducing ACEs, and there is no substitution for it.  How many times do we have to be shown that money up front will pay for itself many times over?  Through the findings of some unlikely rat studies, from which the term “high licking-and-grooming parenting” is taken, we see how the mechanisms of secure attachment equip babies to handle adversity for a lifetime.

New respect for the humble marshmallow:  I will never, ever look at a marshmallow the same way again.  How children resisted the temptation of a nice, fluffy, sweet and inviting marshmallow tells us more about what it takes to work hard, delay gratification, and persevere than a raft of Ed. School textbooks and articles.

Our own Chris Peterson:  The work of the late Dr. Peterson, founder of the Center for Positive Psychology at the University of Michigan, will get you over whatever your quibbles may be with the term “character”, and bring you to a list of traits you will recognize if you have ever been through graduate school.  (Dr. Peterson and his colleague, Dr. Nansook Park, presented a workshop last August through the OS-MISD Psychology Series.  If you were there, you know it was purely lovely.)

Failure is required:  Really.  More specifically, learning to manage failure is how we grow.  The importance of failure recurs throughout this book, but one discussion in particular will help you truly understand the rescue reflex, of which we so deeply despair in high SES parents.

Have you ever done an autopsy?  Some of us have conducted autopsies with students of their socio-behavioral mishaps, but a teacher of chess uses grinding game autopsies to reinforce how to think in kids never before challenged with this particular life-changing charge.  This is the first description of teaching executive functions I have ever found credible.

It’s so easy:  Not!  We are all happiest when we are learning.  If we aren’t challenged, we do not develop.  It really is as simple as that.  See “Failure is required”, above.

Politics:  Somewhere in the last quarter of the 20th century, poverty was politically hitched to education.  This was a revelation to me!  Haven’t you wondered how in the heck we came to be blamed for all of our country’s ills?  You will learn why poverty and education are, as they say, two different things, despite their obvious connections.

The cost of violence:  No matter your politics, never let it be said that witnessing and living with violence carries little personal or societal cost.  Indeed, it is very expensive.  Tough’s stories of Fenger High on Chicago’s south side are echoed to an almost uncanny degree in an unrelated, recently broadcast, two-part radio series on Harper High you can find online in the archives of This American Life.  If you read this book first, then listen to these two episodes, you will get on the other side, and you will be different.  

And when there is the promise of a storm,

if you want change in your life,

walk in to it.

If you get on the other side,

you will be different.

And if you want change in your life,

and you’re avoiding the trouble,

you can forget it.

So wade on in the water,

it’s gonna be really troubled water.

Prelude to Wade in the Water

Sweet Honey in the Rock

Wow. Much to think about!


A fair amount of schadenfreude greeted the release last week of a study showing that the kids of parents who pay for college return their families’ largesse by achieving lower grades. The study, conducted by University of California at Merced professor Laura Hamilton and published in the American Sociological Review, offered those of us who worked our way through college — or took out burdensome student loans — a rare opportunity to gloat. But our self-congratulation is mistaken, or at least beside the point. Hamilton’s work, and that of other researchers, demonstrates that we should all be concerned about the state of higher education in the U.S. today and that college students enjoying a four-year paid vacation courtesy of their parents are merely a symptom of a larger problem.

That problem is this: across the board, American colleges and universities are not doing a very good job of preparing…

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Keep going back to this!

Innovative Ideas in Performance and Pedagogy (IPAP)

I’ve just finished reading Drive, Dan Pink’s thought-provoking and inspiring book on motivation and what “drives” us. Like A Whole New Mind,  his ideas are ones that can help everyone think differently about how we work and live.  In Drive, he explores the truth behind what motivates us, and says that for the 21st century we have to upgrade to “autonomy, mastery and purpose.”  Autonomy, mastery and purpose are the three elements, the three ingredients that will light the fire under us and motivate us ahead.  If we’ve got these three elements as part of our work we’ll feel satisfied and more connected to what we do.

Autonomy is the desire to direct our own lives.
Mastery is the urge to get better and better at something that matters.
Purpose is the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.


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Power With, Not Power Over: Building Community


Reading the section on Community Building in High Impact Instruction by Jim Knight.  Chapter 11 is entitled “Power With, Not Power Over”.

Power With involves authentic power we develop with students.  To do so, we must practice empathizing with, connecting with, and respecting students.  

Empathizing is an active engagement that  is a “willingness to become part of another’s experience, to share the feeling of the experience”.

“Empathy is the very means by which we create social life and advance civilization.”  Jeremy Rifkin

“Power with” our student begins with the simple desire to empathize with them, to deeply understand how they are experiencing our class and school, and how they think and feel about what is important in their lives.  ”  This is about being intentional about understanding.

Teachers can use empathy as a strategy for everything they do in class.  Some specific examples given by Knight include:

  1. see the class through individual students’ eyes as much as possible
  2. put photographs of all students on the wall where lesson design occurs to remind that the focus is on these children
  3. do a mental roll-call of all student’s faces before planning a lesson to consider the needs of each student
  4. consider how high, average, low and other learning students are doing in your class
  5. prompt students to do Martin Seligman’s Three Good Things Exercise
  6. use more formal methods:  interest surveys, strength surveys, writing prompts, anonymous feedback
  7. have a peer of yours interview students
  8. take a challenging class that will help you understand the experiences of students who are struggling (I recommend trying to knit socks!  )

Building effective relationships with students is a pivotal piece of their learning process.

Teaching with Sanity in Check

Recess back when they had it: 1974

One of my longest friendships is with a woman who held my hand into kindergarten over 4o years ago.  We wore Brownie’s uniforms together in elementary school; we sported the same Ugg boots in middle school (when they could be had for less than $20 ) ; we suntanned on my roof for senior skip day together; went to college, got married and had babies together.  Monthly dinners with my chica keep me sane.  She happens to be an elementary school teacher.

And she is tired.

Elementary and early childhood educators are a unique group.    They are selfless givers.  The culture embraces altruistic behaviors in a magnified way.  This can lead to exhaustion if we can’t figure out how to have boundaries within our loving environment.

Catching up on the latest with my friend,  I learn that the exhaustion circles around time and the lack of:  too much testing; catering to parents of kids who are absent; how to spend quality time with a gaggle of kids ( who show up at her door every day for lunch) and still have time to take care of other needs.   Her heart is constantly pulled.  The pull is exhausting.    When you meet every need for everyone, there is no time for yourself.

What to do?

We talked about putting routines in place to minimize many of the dilemmas listed (save the testing problem).  By creating routines, you can still “show the love”, but in ways that keep you sane.    Jim Knight hints at this in his book High Impact Instruction in both chapter 12 (Freedom with Form) and chapter 13 (Expectations).  A quote from the book:

“Anyone can improvise with no restrictions, but that’s not jazz.  Jazz always has some restrictions.  Otherwise, it might sound like noise.  The ability to improvise…comes from fundamental knowledge and this knowledge limits the choices you can make and will make.”      Winton Marsalis

Some suggestions for creating procedures and routines around these concerns

Problem:  Kids missing school are missing on the real learning that happens cooperatively. They also miss content delivery, which comes in a variety of formats

  • Locate content lessons on-line when content came from alternative sources. Provide thinking prompts for lessons.  Put everything on-line with printed hard copies available for those without technology.  Communicate policy about late and missing assignments. Teach them the routine

Problem:  District required math links in the form of homework do not always come back; parents contact wanting time extensions

  • Provide several “free homework passes”.  Things come up.  Teach them the routine.

Problem:  Students from previous years (and those currently in class) want to help before school, after school and at lunch.  I have no prep time

  • Offer the kids choices about days/times they can come.  Reserve days and times for you, in advance.  Teach them the routine.  

Now here is the hard part:  Mean what you say and say what you mean.

Sticking with the plan means you won’t be re-negotiating every other minute.  This will tug at your heart,  but your  sanity is worth keeping!