Parent Book Club: Intro to “Teach Your Children Well” with Guest Moderator Kurt Wootton

Welcome to the real-time Parent Book Club chat! To have access to all the comments and replies, please click on the title of this post; the post will go to a new page, and comments will be located at the bottom of the post. To see new comments/replies, just hit your refresh button from time to time. For more discussion, follow me on Twitter here or on Facebook here. Thanks!

Tonight’s discussion will be led and moderated by 20-year teaching veteran and author Kurt Wootton. He is cofounder of the ArtsLiteracy Project in the Education Department at Brown University, and he is currently the director of Habla: The Center for Language and Culture, an ArtsLiteracy lab school in Merida, Mexico. His first book, A Reason to Read: Linking Literacy and the Arts, was written with Eileen Landay and recently published by Harvard University Press. He is also a relatively new parent: his daughter is a little over two years old. (Go here for full bio.)

Kurt has so kindly written tonight’s post and discussion question on the introduction to Madeline Levine’s Teach Your Children Well.   He will also be around to comment and reply to your thoughts and questions. We are so excited to have him! Welcome, Kurt!

Dance Like No One’s Watching, by Kurt Wootton

Think back to a classroom experience that looked something like: a) read a chapter in the textbook; b) fill out some worksheets; c) listen to the teacher lecture; d) take a multiple choice test; e) repeat the process throughout the entire school year. This was my, and probably your, experience in many classes: algebra, history, physics, biology, chemistry. We view students as “successful” if they are able to consistently and quickly memorize large quantities of information the night before a test. If students do this throughout their school career their classmates and teachers will call them “smart,” even if they can’t think through a complex problem, collaborate with classmates, or create something original. The formula of teaching students facts and then testing them is very easy. We know who is the “best” student and who is the “worst.” We know who should be in the honor society or who is the valedictorian, but we aren’t developing and rewarding the broad range of diverse skills and talents our students bring to the academic environment.

Madeline Levine, in her book Teach Your Children Well, encourages us to move beyond valuing such superficial accomplishments and push ourselves and our children to embrace what she refers to as “authentic success.” Madeline notes that, “We know far too much about promoting healthy child development to continue to tolerate the myth that success is a straight and narrow path, with childhood sacrificed in the process. The truth is that most successful people have followed winding paths, have had false starts, and have enjoyed multiple careers.” We spend so much time in our schools assessing our students with micro-tasks—problems sets, quizzes, tests, papers—we either push students away from school, or, for those that choose to play the game, as Levine notes, they often become sleep-deprived, stressed, anxious, or even depressed.

Learning should be about taking the time to contemplate the questions of the universe. Imagine a physics teacher walking into her classroom and explaining to the students, “This year you will work in groups to try to do what Einstein wasn’t able to: to construct an overall physical theory of the universe. First you need some background information. Let’s start with Newton.” Or imagine an English teacher saying, “We read to understand who we are as human beings. We’ll consider what Hamlet’s problems have to do with our own, and by the end of this course you just might see your life in a different way.” In these classes the chance at arriving at a “correct” answer is largely out of the question. But imagine the journey!

Contrary to what many parents might think, even the road to external success is windier than it would appear. I taught for many years in an Ivy League school. Most of my students weren’t perfect academically in high school, but they were nearly all interesting. It seemed that the admissions office was not looking for the seemingly perfect student, the ones who always filled in the correct bubble. There were plenty of those applying. They wanted students who had a strong sense of integrity and a passion for something. There was Daveed the fabulous hip-hop lyricist and Jody who could dance like Michael Jackson. I remember one of my students, Liz, who wrote a top ten list of why the school should accept her, rather than writing the college essay. When I asked her about it for this article, she wrote me:

I did write a top ten list for my college essay; how on earth do you remember that? I’m pretty sure it was full of “dance like no one’s watching”-esque nuggets and Bob Dylan lyrics, though for some reason they let me in anyway.

These were students who had followed their bliss, to use writer Joseph Campbell’s term, and it showed.

Perhaps all of us as teachers and parents must work to do less talking and more listening—less cajoling and more observing. We need to help our young people find what they are passionate about and nurture those passions at home and in school. Madeline offers this definition of “authentic success”:

“Authentic success is being ‘the best me I can be’ not simply in isolation, but as part of a community, and it always includes a component of meaningful contribution and connection with others.”

Tonight’s Talk: What are authentic successes and what are the various ways we, as parents and teachers, can work to help our young people achieve them rather than the superficial ones our schools and society often demand?

I look forward to the conversation.

43 thoughts on “Parent Book Club: Intro to “Teach Your Children Well” with Guest Moderator Kurt Wootton

  1. Thank you so much, Kurt, for being a part of tonight’s discussion! I love this post, and I think I love the bit about how Brown chooses students the most – makes me happy to think that an institution like that one recognizes kids for their different gifts. It makes me think of something the prodigy and brilliant scientist Alison Gopnik said about her own school career: based on her own high school grades and test scores, she wouldn’t have even gotten in to Berkeley, where she now teaches. Shows us we might be a bit off the deep end, eh?

  2. I think a really important topic as it applies to our current school and parenting culture is failure. It’s so unpopular to talk about, even Levine calls them “successful failures.” Without embracing the concept of failure, how do children have any context for success?

    • Excellent point: before we talk about how open and accepting the Ivies are, we need to talk about how not everyone’s going to an Ivy. In fact, most aren’t. I think this is very difficult, because of school and culture being what it is, we are kind of “wired” to push kids to succeed. Kurt, what do you have to say on this one?

      • Right. I also love the idea of authentic success and individualizing it, but it just seems like we are preparing our children best for the world if we do the same for failure. Don’t sugar coat failure, but teach our children to work through it, learn from it and use it.

      • Well, I have quite a bit to say on this one. Most of my work has been in urban and rural schools in different countries, with the majority of students not going to an Ivy, or even to college. For people coming out of backgrounds of poverty, external successes matter tremendously, since education is and, we hope, always will be one of the primary catalysts for transcending social classes. I think Levine’s book isn’t only for middle/upper-middle class families. The ideas, particularly as we get near the end when she talks about “Seven Essential Coping Skills” are really about what education should look like that supports the growth of the whole individual of any social/economic background.

    • Great comment Annie. It’s important for us to define what we mean by “failure.” There are those good failures, that ultimately are part of an extended process and lead to eventual success, and then there are those failures that cause kids to give up, perhaps drop out of school, and move towards a potential difficult future. Twyla Tharp in The Creative Mind mentions that 99% of her work is failure, but it happens in her own studio, and by the time she reaches the stage she has a pretty good chance at success. A similar comment come from Sir Dyson who reimagined the vacuum cleaner. In speaking about his prototypes for his vacuum he claims that he had “5,126 failures.” But each one led ultimately to that one that was successful. I do think we need to give students time to really tinker and experiment with stuff in school and allow for the kinds of mistakes and failures that lead to success. This can’t happen if kids are always going for the quick “A” and have not time to breathe.

      • I spoke with a parent recently on how her child has not grasped third-grade multiplication, yet they are moving on to fractions anyway. She is worried that the failure ahead of him is the not-so-good kind: he is smart and works hard, but he needs that tinkering time. In many schools, though, they don’t give it.

    • That idea of failure is intriguing. I’m reminded of teaching methods like Montessori that emphasize letting even preschool-aged children try things for themselves, possibly “fail,” and try the same thing the next day. It seems we don’t often take that approach with school-aged children. Kids get the idea pretty quickly that if they don’t seem to have a gift for something they best be moving on. It’s a shame.

      • Hi there Wendy! So happy you got to be with us! I actually think it’s not that we just don’t take that approach – we have engineered things so our kids don’t even have a chance to acknowledge it. My son was crying – crying! – because he wasn’t the best pitcher on his baseball team. He didn’t get to pitch a game, this year. We took the chance to tell him that he could practice really hard and try again in the spring. Did I like seeing him cry? NO. But do I think he got the idea? He’s outside throwing pitches every day after school. What gets harder is how to ease him into things if he doesn’t get to pitch next spring. Have you had a similar situation?

      • Hi Wendy, How interesting that you mention Montessori. Holly has also talked about the Waldorf schools on her site. You’re right, we have these great school models for pre-school or elementary age kids, but often our society and our education policies leaves “play” “creativity” and the “imagination” behind in the younger grades. It’s funny, when I walk into these classrooms as an adult, I want to sit with the kids and play with the blocks! There’s something very important in that need that is lost from our institutions as we get older.

  3. Kurt, I really appreciated your acknowledging the difference between “perfect” students and “interesting” students. I’d like to hope we parents strive to raise interesting people, not perfect people (as if it were possible). It certainly raises the question of what we adults try to role model for our children. And what sort of messages we should allow the media to interject into our lives.

    I loved the definition of “authentic success” particularly because it recognized the three Cs – connection, community and contribution.

    • I too loved how she broke down “authentic success” into these three areas. Imagine how schools (and parenting) would look different if these are the core principles we upheld. I also like how you offer the same challenge to us as adults as to our young people. We too must model “interesting” lives.

      • Absolutely. I do not believe that I shouldn’t show my frustration in front of my kids, as those PBS psas tell me to do. I want my kids to see me frustrated – then they know it’s ok, that it’s a part of life.

  4. How ideal would it be if we were striving for “well-being,” rather than happiness in not only our children but ourselves? I applaud the idea of helping children feel not some false sense of worth through entitlement but instead a sense of knowing and appreciating themselves deeply.

    • Re: Imagine how schools (and parenting) would look different if these are the core principles we upheld.

      Kurt – I’m curious how you imagine these would be different . . . ?

      • I’d like to hear what you have to think about it as well sing4two! But I’ll have a go at it. In terms of connection we need to be inspired by what we are studying in school and how it connects to our lives. School faculties should always be wrestling with the “why” behind their content areas. “Why Chemistry matter to me? Why is it important in the world? Why should I care?” We must take up the question, “What is schooling for and why does it matter?” with each other and with our students if we are to connect education to their lives.

        In the public high school I attended, there were some classes where I knew only maybe five students. Sure, this is partly my fault for not reaching out to more, but at the same time the school put no emphasis on community. They actually tracked students separating us from our peers. Schools in a democratic society, particularly one that is so diverse, must help us to truly know each other. We must work together, think together, build things together, and develop a shared understanding of who we are as human beings. I know this is ideal, but the project of public education always has been, so why not reach for it?

        Young people are often told that they have nothing to contribute to society until they graduate from college. Levine speaks to this very well in her book. There is no reason that our kids and students can’t be volunteering, working, or tinkering in a variety of capacities for the public good, and schools should be one venue where students learn what these possibilities are.

        You’ve asked a wonderful question and one I’d like to explore more. Some great places doing this kind of work are the MET school in Providence, RI, Quaker private schools deeply rooted in the tradition of community and service, after-school organizations like the Food Project in Boston or the 52nd Street Project in NYC, and large organizations like the Coalition of Essential Schools.

      • Wow, Kurt – I love your answer. I agree that being able to answer the “why” is huge in schools – and in communications with parents and voters! Interestingly, this is one of the pillars of adult education . . . answer the “why” right up front or lose your students.

        Why is it important to play or study great literature or language or chemistry? Because often – to Wendy’s point – we believe it helps one develop an understanding and appreciation of the inner self which leads to well-being and to feeling part of the larger “human” community.

        In the Waldorf tradition, a class is a community – staying together for years. While many worry, “what if there are personality conflict” – the beauty is that ….there are personality conflicts . . . and then in second grade there aren’t, and in third grade things change again. Assuming issues aren’t egregious, students learn to get along, learn to forgive, learn to encourage and reach out with their peers.

      • Sing4two, the community aspect of Waldorf education is one of my favorite things about it, and one I didn’t even consider when we began. There is so much more to school than just getting the information, and learning to be a part of something bigger – the community – has turned out to be one of the biggest reason I’d recommend it.

    • Wendy – I agree! Then I wonder how best to help my children (and myself!) know and appreciate myself deeply. I have a hunch that it requires stillness and quiet and time to reflect. All increasingly hard to find & create. A walk in the woods, perhaps. :)

      • Yes, a walk in the woods. I love this. I had a colleague Dan Bisaccio who took his Biology class for a walk in the woods every day. He said his only standard was for students to “love nature.” Now that’s a teacher you want!

    • I completely agree, Wendy. To me, well-being also implies balance. How we’ve come to communicate about happiness often ends up really being gratification. I work with a lot of people from the Gen Y set and I have to say my experience with the stereotype of entitlement is absolutely real. And they seem to choose a false sense of worth or meaning or success over the authentic very nearly every time. Appreciating yourself requires some acknowledgement of your imperfections and flaws, but in the everyone gets a trophy culture, how do you achieve balance that leads to well-being?

      • Love love the idea of happiness that really is gratification!

        Choosing the more superficial sense of success is all around us, so I think it takes a great deal of work to counteract those cultural messages that are sent to us. Think of Lance! My oldest kid adores him. What to say?

      • Annie, I’d like to start by being a better example for my kids. I’d like them to see me take more risks and pursue more deeply the things I believe in. I’d like them to watch me try without being assured of success. Then I’d like to try to help them put their heads, hearts, and hands in the areas of the world that make them raise their eyebrows. Holly, they see my frustration plenty, so I’ve got that one covered!

      • Wendy, love this: “Then I’d like to try to help them put their heads, hearts, and hands in the areas of the world that make them raise their eyebrows.” If that isn’t one of the greatest definitions of passion, then I don’t know what is.

      • What a great comment Wendy: “Then I’d like to try to help them put their heads, hearts, and hands in the areas of the world that make them raise their eyebrows.” As a parent I’d like to take on your challenge as well. I moved to Mexico which is certainly a big risk, but I need to get out from behind the computer more often and experience the community I’m living in. I want my daughter to have the courage to reach out to the world.

  5. Hey Kurt (and Holly), I was really taken with the difference between ‘perfect’ and ‘interesting’ students, mentioned earlier by swing4two. I’ve definitely seen that difference from a teacher’s perspective, and I wonder if there’s a way to work that difference in teachers, too.

    • Great point Scott. I think what you’re getting at is how we can foster and support teachers that are “interesting.” Am I right? Absolutely, and as a school administrator myself I feel that is an important part of our work together as a school. We see ourselves as a learning school and we’re always pushing each other to try new things and learn from each other. The problem in education today, and with many schools, is that the emphasis on testing and quantitative results stresses teachers (and everyone) out, leads to mind-numbing lessons, and takes all the energy away from the teachers to do their most creative work. What do you think Scott? What is your teaching situation like?

      • Thanks for the chance to clarify: yes, I’m curious about interesting teachers, too. Seems that there should be a synergy between the kind of student (and person) we are encouraging and the person doing the encouraging. I’m lucky in that I teach in a college, and so the demands of meeting administrators’ expectations for my classrooms are very minimal. But what sort of opportunities are there, especially for public school teachers, for teachers to be interesting?

      • I think that being in a supportive and stimulating school environment is one of the best ways to stay “interesting” as a teacher. Interesting folks attract interesting folks leading some schools to be inspirational places to work. The media often has given us the image that schools are mediocre, horrible, or at best boring environments. But there are so many schools in the United States that are stimulating educational environments. A friend of mine just wrote a book called Hip Hop Genius about the School for the Recording Arts, or “Hip-Hop High” in Minneapolis that is a fascinating public school. Many charter schools are wonderful places to work and organizations like the Coalition of Essential Schools gather progressive educators from around the country who have big visions of what might happen in education. Even in seemingly mundane schools there are always groups of teachers that band together and do great work together. I remember the choral theatre, and music director in my high school as a kid as well as several teachers in my English department who formed these kind of pods of interesting work.

        We might also ask the question at the policy level. But we’ll leave that for another day. (And certainly our two presidential candidates have done nothing to answer the question of how to support and nurture teachers in the public schools, actually both are doing the opposite).

  6. My favorite quote from the intro: “Perhaps of even greater concern, because it involves far more kids, is the fact that our limited definition of success fails to acknowledge those students whose potential contributions are not easily measurable. If we insist on a narrow and metric-based definition of success, then we maddeningly consign potentially valuable contributors to our society to an undervalued and even bleak future.” As we move along in the book, I want to keep this in mind! Did anyone else get the shakes reading this? How do we broaden the terms around success?

  7. It looks like things are winding down. Thank you so much, Kurt, and to all of you who participated tonight. It was a banner night, and a record number of readers. I hope you will keep reading and come back and share your thoughts some more. Good night!

  8. Thanks all and thank you Holly for the invitation. I really enjoyed the conversation and everyone’s participation. Never has an hour and half of writing gone by so quickly! Thoughtful, generous comments all around. And thank you Holly for this blog. You write about education in such a thoughtful, warm, and compassionate way. We all look forward to reading much more of your work in the future.

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