All the Names

One of the most thought provoking books that I’ve read over the past few years is All the Names by Jose Saragamo. Senhor José is keeper of the records for nameless people in his city. The records of the living and the dead stretch back through time and he becomes caught up in looking at records and wondering about the people that they represent. His quest to find out about an unknown woman and her life attracts the attention of the registrar and he quickly becomes suspect as he takes risks to challenge the system and find a real connection.  In the end, the record means nothing. It doesn’t capture the story of that person.

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Our Permanent Records

I imagine that in some dark closet in the district where I attended school, there’s a file (maybe on microfiche) of my permanent record from school. Along with my GPA, class rank, and club records, is perhaps a miscellaneous accounting of my shortcomings and mistakes. The time that my first grade teacher kept us after school until someone confessed to stealing something. Even though I wasn’t the guilty student, I cried buckets of tears to be wrongly accused and punished. And I missed choir practice that day. From which I didn’t recover. Because I stopped singing.  I’m sure there’s also a stack of records recording my failure at softball, crafts and handwriting. I was a left-handed student in a right-handed world and no one accounted for that in sports or instruction. Scissors were a challenge. I developed a horror of volleyball and was sent to the guidance counselor for some psychological evaluation. I heard “this will go on your permanent record” so many times that I stopped talking in class. One teacher commented, “Donna is so quiet. I hardly know she is there. She is a good student.” And so I followed the rules.

And the permanent records don’t end when we graduate from college. We get jobs and have performance evaluations that go in a file somewhere. Education, like many other professions, has an extensive set of requirements to ensure that employees are qualified for their jobs. We don’t always get a redo when we’ve had a failure. In the worst circumstances, we get a file in our permanent record. So we follow the rules and avoid implementing new ideas that are risky.

Beyond the Permanent Record

Somehow, in spite of the permanent records on file, I’ve managed to get along in the world. In fact, the struggles have made me more empathetic to students and colleagues at work. It turns out that there can’t be a permanent record for a person. The power of the human spirit is that we can grow, change and overcome challenges. We are in a constant state of iteration with each new experience. We learn from failures and that becomes a strength.  Ernest Hemingway said it well, “The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.”

There is light at the end of the stack of records. Many schools around the country are recognizing the need to allow our students to continuously progress over a continuum through competency-based education. Programs that foster growth mindset and 21st century skills are enabling students to become successful, lifelong learners.

The final step in removing the permanent record is to empower teachers to try out new ideas and protect them from adverse consequences. If we want our students to become problem solvers, we must allow educators to find and solve problems too. I encourage readers to embrace empathy and support colleagues in their continuous growth this year. By building each other up, we are building a future for our students. Our lasting record is the difference that we make in the lives of students and colleagues.

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#r2innovates Si Se Puede team designs for their customers.

In the Sundance movie Ants on a Shrimp,  René Redzepi, chef and co-owner of Noma, a Denmark restaurant, decides to risk everything to open a restaurant in Tokyo, Japan for a five week run. He moves his entire staff to Tokyo and asks them to reimagine a 14 course menu.

After weeks of preparation, the staff shares their new menu with Redzepi. He’s a harsh critique and reflects that they simply copied the menu structure from the Denmark restaurant and pasted it in the new restaurant. They were not able to think beyond the template that they knew. He reminds the team that they have customers with high expectations for excellence and asks that they get back to work and keep their new customers in mind. A review of the movie states that Redzepi pushes his staff “not just to look but to see” through a different lens to come up with a unique menu to meet the needs of Japanese customers.

As the new school year begins, I challenge each of you to cut copy/paste and templates out of your vocabulary and actions. In professional development workshops, I often hear participants asking for a template to use as they create lessons and long range plans. Our educational system has trained us to be good followers – to complete the lesson plan templates, fill out the evaluation forms, and follow the set schedules.

Old habits die hard, but we must change those habits and replace them with a design process that allows us to move outside the boundaries of what we’ve done in the past. We need to prepare our students to be critical thinkers and problem solvers. They deserve to have the opportunity to come up with unique solutions and express their creativity. Copy/paste doesn’t work if we want to develop cognitive skills in our students.

Taking another lesson from Redzepi, go outside of your school and classroom and immerse yourself in the culture of your community. Talk to business people about their hiring practices and what qualities they look for in applicants. Bring together a team of educators and brainstorm ways to bring a fresh perspective to your work. Ban the phrase “this is the way we’ve always done things” and make bold moves to prototype new, promising ideas that will prepare our students for the future they deserve.

I look forward to hearing your stories. Have an amazing school year!

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