Want to hear a joke?

flag photo

One of the first memories I have of visiting Hillbrook School, where I now work as Head of Lower School, was learning about the rituals and traditions of what is called “Flag” during my initial tour of campus. On Monday mornings, the whole school community (children, faculty, parents, etc.) comes together to share announcements, sing Happy Birthday to those celebrating that week, and start the week. It naturally struck me as a beautiful way for a community to mark time together through connection and celebration. And then I learned that at the end of Flag there is the invitation for children to tell JOKES, and I fell head over heels in love with the school.

In her book Voice Lessons, social-clinical psychologist Dr. Wendy Mogel writes,

“The first time you make your baby laugh is a delight. But the first time your child makes you laugh out loud is cosmic: a reward for your years of toil and a reliable bellwether of the quality of his life ahead…Laughter is our consolation prize for the indignities and cruel plot twists we all endure, beginning in childhood…it is the best relief valve for our culture of relentless striving, and children learn how to use it by watching you.”

If you’re not familiar with Hillbrook, some of what’s written below will be idiosyncratic to the rituals and rhythms of our school culture (and you should come visit!). That said, much of it is transferable to all children and their development. It is such a joy to watch children try on humor through joke-telling, and a privilege to reward them with our laughter. I find that there are a few recurring archetypes of joke experiences, and every time one of them makes an appearance during Flag I get a little giddy.

The one where the joke’s not really funny.

This happens almost every Flag, and I know there are people (mostly grown ups) in the audience who just don’t get (yet) why this archetype is the greatest of them all. I often get asked why I let kids go to the microphone to tell a joke that doesn’t make any sense. I do it because in that moment, the act of joke-telling isn’t about me or any adult, it’s about the risk that child is taking and the reward they deserve for that risk (the applause and appreciation of a crowd). The unfunny joke reminds me of how wondrous and mysterious child development is. When those 5-7 year olds (because that’s usually the age range the non-funny jokes come from) get up in front of 400+ people to introduce themselves and share a joke….they don’t know it’s not funny. Honestly, most of the things we find funny don’t really make sense to them yet. As their brains develop, the intricacies and nuances of language are just beginning to sprout. Most humor, and especially most jokes, are based on knowing these subtle nuances and double-meanings of words and phrases. In spite of that, these children have learned a few critical things:

  • Making people laugh with you feels good. It feels good to them and it feels good to you.
  • Words and language can be used to communicate needs and to elicit emotions (like joy and delight), this makes words powerful.
  • Jokes (and humor) have a rhythm to them. There is often a question posed, and there is a punchline. The punchline is what makes people smile.
  • Anyone can tell a joke to anyone (or hundreds of anyones at the same time!)

So they stand up and introduce themselves to all of the Hillbrook community, and tell a joke. And every time they are rewarded for their efforts. And I promise, they all learn how to tell truly funny jokes eventually. Stick it out with them. In the meantime, don’t shut down their non-funny jokes. They are trying on a lot of behaviors, and their motivation is to delight and captivate you. A laugh is a small price to pay in exchange for the gift they are giving you by trusting you with their developing sense of humor.

The one where they refuse to tell me their joke before going to the microphone.

This usually happens towards the beginning of the year, when the routine of needing to “practice” (read: pre-approve) their joke with me before going to the microphone isn’t fully understood yet. There have been a handful of time over the years when a child has flat out refused to tell me their joke before going to the stage. They look at me like I’m a thief, like I’m going to steal their joke or am cutting in line by not waiting to listen to it at the right time. Eventually I can usually get them to practice, but they still look at me like I just don’t get how this Flag and joke-telling thing works. Which brings me to….

The one where they practice one joke with me and then tell another one from on stage.

Like the two archetypes before it, this one also stems from a not-yet-fully-formed understanding of how jokes work. They seem to think that once they tell a joke, they can’t repeat that same joke at the microphone. They’ve used it up! So somewhere between whispering to me a joke and when they get to the stage, they invent a NEW joke (usually unfunny or nonsensical, see above). Common themes of invented jokes include: puppies, kittens, chickens, cookies, and anything with the knock-knock format.

The one where they try to tell the knock-knock joke with the banana & orange and botch the delivery.

I’ve been an educator for nearly 15 years and this happens multiple times every single year, even at schools that don’t have Flag and don’t do jokes! The joke is supposed to go like this:

Knock, knock!

Who’s there?

Banana.

Banana who?

Knock, knock!

Who’s there?

Banana.

Banana who?

Knock, knock!

WHO’S THERE?!

Banana.

Banana WHOOOO?

Knock, knock!

Ugh! WHO’S THERE?!

Orange.

Orange who?

Orange you glad I didn’t say banana!

Kids love this joke, and even very young children understand it. There’s suspense. Confusion. Frustration. And the inevitable dawning of comprehension and ensuing hilarity. It is an automatic home run. So naturally, they want to give this gift of extraordinary humor to the Hillbrook community at Flag. They want to be the deliverers of such hilariousness! Who wouldn’t?

But almost always, in their eagerness to get to that moment where they bask in the glorious laughter and appreciation of the audience…they switch the fruits. They start with orange (instead of banana). You can see a little furrow of confusion on their face as they realize that something is off, but they can’t quite put their finger on what. Sometimes they even get to the end and sort of mumble through an uncertain “Banana…you glad I didn’t…say…orange?” And they walk off looking at each other like “Why didn’t that work quite right?” Nevertheless, the community always applauds and cheers.

The one with the chicken that crosses something to do something else.

I admit, I don’t particularly like this joke. However, there is something comforting about it. It’s like a warm blanket or a comfort food. It shows up when you need it and it’s always there to fall back on. Because, at the heart of it, getting up to tell a joke at Flag isn’t really about funny. It’s about community. It’s about exemplifying our core values through a shared experience. I find that more often than any other age group it’s our older students who most often pull out the “Why did the chicken cross the road?” joke during their last years at Hillbrook. I know it’s not because they’ve run out of ideas or sources. I like to think it’s because they are rehearsing the parts of Hillbrook that are most beloved to them through laughing at Flag and semi-funny tried and true chicken jokes.

I invite you to watch for and delight in these archetypes at Flag throughout the year. If you aren’t fortunate enough to join us every week, I imagine many of these archetypes play out in front of you from the children in your own life, and now you know to look for it. These are little morsels of childhood, clues to where their brains are growing and signposts for the road ahead. I am sure there are more I have missed and will continue to uncover in the years ahead. Jokes remains my favorite Hillbrook tradition because no matter how bad your case of the Mondays is, you can come to Flag knowing you will be treated to a display of courage, humor, risk-taking, delight, teamwork, and joy. Flag, and the tradition of jokes, is about belonging – and that’s why we show up and laugh and applaud and cheer no matter what.

When was the last time you “wiped out”…and talked about it?

 

I can be incredibly clumsy. Anyone who is around me long enough knows I’m bound to run into something, fall off something, trip over something, or drop something. I’ve learned to embrace this aspect of myself and brush off the dust and ignore the bumps. I recently fell off my bike (ok…I fell off twice) – and while neither fall was serious or even stick-fallingwitnessed by many others….it was still horribly embarrassing. Getting back up on the bike still required a couple deep breaths and some inward self coaching. Other kinds of mistakes and failure (professional, relational, etc.) are no less comfortable, and they certainly aren’t welcome to the extent that I would willingly seek them out.

There are numerous articles citing abundant research about the growth mindset and the benefits gained when children make mistakes and experience failure. Research shows that when children are raised in reflective, supportive environments (at home and at school) they develop resilience and learn to view these challenges as learning opportunities. A recent article from Time called “Why Every Parent Should Suffer a Total Wipeout” goes a step farther by illuminating how little we may practice what we preach in a way that is transparent for children. Though the article is written with parents in mind, it’s not difficult to extend the message to teachers and any adults that interact with children in a nurturing capacity.

Do we recognize and appreciate the difficulty of what we are asking children to do when we urge them to persevere, try again, and keep their chin up? Do we empathize with how emotionally and physically exhausting it is to keep picking yourself up (literally or metaphorically) and throwing yourself into something again? Even if that thing is something you desperately love and want to improve at? How often do we truly try something that we have no idea how to do as adults? The author’s own experience of trying something new and finding it extremely difficult, watching others (even her own children) succeed more quickly around her, and needing to push through challenging emotions was a powerful opportunity for her to grow empathy for what we ask children to experience on a daily basis. Most, if not all, of their days involve encountering something completely new (a new math skill, book, idea, friend, game, conflict resolution skill, sport, and more). We ask them to try….and try again! We ask them to trust us that with trying and with time they will grow. We know this to be true…..but what if we also SHOWED them how it’s true for us as well?

When we’ve learned so much and spent so much of our lives trying, failing forward, and developing our skills, talents, and passions….it’s easier to stick to what we’re already good at and comfortable with than it is to try something completely new. But what is lost if our children and students never have a confident, articulate model to show them the healthy way through failure and challenge? What is the cost if we leave them with the false idea that perseverance is something only children need and failure when trying something new is only something kids encounter?

So She Wants To Be A Scientist?

Despite efforts to raise awareness and turn the tide….girls and women are still significantly underrepresented in the sciences. Do we need more role models? More female accessible toys and science related products? Increased girl-only classes and programs? This article suggests those approaches, while well-intentioned, aren’t effectively addressing the problem. The typical interventions treat it as though it is a result of lack of interest…as if science as a field for women to pursue their learning, passion, and profession isn’t being “sold” in a feminine enough way. Worth a read…and perhaps ongoing conversation with the science-driven girls/women in your life.

“A researcher measured the effect of a handful of common interventions on students’ interest in physics: single-sex classes; having role models including women physics teachers, women guest speakers, and women who made contributions to the field; and discussing the problem of underrepresentation itself. Of these efforts, only the last one succeeded in making high-school women more interested in pursuing a career in the physical sciences…I’m still all for Legos featuring women scientists, engineering toys that cater to different learning styles, and tales of academics who don’t look like a narrow slice of America. What I object to is that these things are used to pitch science to girls as though they aren’t naturally inclined to care about science in the first place—or as if they have to be as knowledgeable as a two-time Nobel Prize winner in order to participate.

What if we asked questions instead of setting goals?

As a faculty we’ve been exploring the idea of abandoning goal statements in favor of rephrasing them as thoughtful questions. This emphasizes the process rather than the product, invites the learning community into the conversation, and opens up the question-asker to a variety of possible answers that might otherwise have remained unexplored.

I encourage you to click through this engaging presentation that distills Warren Berger’s book A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas into a digestible fifteen-minutes.

Where is there space for questions in your work/life?

“Always the beautiful answer / who asks a more beautiful question.”

—e.e. cummings

Learning & Loving To Read

This NPR story is a Q&A with Daniel Willingham, author of newly released book Raising Kids Who Read. His top insight for instilling a love of reading in children? Model an active lifestyle of reading and loving it. Read what you love (fiction, magazines, New York Times editorials, biographies, etc…there are so many forms of reading and children need to know this too!) and talk about what you read (in developmentally appropriate ways, of course). Children learn to value what the key adults in their life demonstrate active value for. Teachers and parents can teach children to read (decode, make meaning, analyze, etc). They can also teach children to love reading. 

The Innovation School

I had the opportunity to visit NuVu Studio: The Innovation School last week in Cambridge, MA. NuVu is doing a number of remarkable things in partnership with Beaver Country Day School, which sends approximately 30 high school students each trimester to the NuVu campus to spend 8 weeks deeply engaged in the innovation & design thinking process.

design thinkingEach session has a theme. The theme for this past winter session was “health”. Students engaged in 2-week-long projects that explored different problematic prompts. I had the opportunity to speak with Laurel and hear her share about an incredibly innovative product designed to promote health by servicing a need that people face when they are on the brink of death. backcountryIVLaurel and her group engaged in the complete design thinking process (as depicted in the above graphic) multiple times over to ultimately produce a functional and portable IV kit that attaches to a nalgene bottle and is able to filter, sterilize, and heat a water solution for combating hypothermia in backcountry or high altitude circumstances when emergency responders may be a long way off. I invite you to learn, through text and images, more about her group’s project by viewing their online portfolio.

While the product itself was captivating to me given my love of the outdoors and penchant for mountaineering, what was even more riveting was unique and transferable skill set these high school students had gained in a few short weeks (and those heavily interrupted by winter weather at that!). The NuVu students learned and practiced the skills of:

  • Asking thought provoking questions of each other and relevant experts.
  • Collaboratively approaching a problem, learning to leverage the strengths of each group member for the success of the team and the project.
  • Navigating obstacles, whether they be challenges in design, technology, group dynamics, or thought…persevering through the iterative process of design thinking to the resultant end of a workable prototype.
  • Increasing facility with a wide variety of different tools and skills that traditionally take full high school or college courses to master. Students did not enter the doors of NuVu with the ability to use 3D printers and its associated software, wield laser cutters, examine swaths of computer code for errors, complete wiring and electrical circuits, discuss medical diagnoses, and more. However they left with confidence and competence to use their resources to get the answers they need to continue moving the design thinking process forward.
  • Confidently advocating for their perspective and approach.
  • Communicating their thinking verbally, via a variety of multimedia tools, and in articulate text to convey process, possibilities, and product.

When given the time, the freedom, and the tools to focus on a single problem the ideas nuvugenerated by these young minds were unbelievably impressive. These students used high-level skills in all curriculum areas (mathematics, programming, writing, reading, science, history, communications, etc.) throughout their work.  It begs the question, how can we make this incredibly valuable, transformative, and applicable-to-the-future experience more broadly available in independent schools? What creativity is lost by requiring completion of a set course of study before students are presented with real-world dilemmas? What lives could be saved or bettered if children, who are often deep wells of empathy, were given meaningfully structured opportunities in their education to truly unleash the power of their intellect and creativity? What lessons does the NuVu Studio have for us that we can apply to ensure that our children are prepared for THEIR future…and not our past?

Do you Doodle?

Visual-NotetakingOne of the speakers at the NAIS Annual Conference was Sunni Brown, champion of doodling as a valued form of thinking – both process thinking and representative thinking. She spoke about visual literacy.  As a long-time doodler myself (literally decades of fostering…and sometimes hiding or resisting…this habit) I wanted to scream and jump and applaud her for shedding light on how important visual representation is. Think about your students who doodle and consider thinking innovatively about how to channel their need to put pen to paper and produce a picture towards learning…instead of trying to shut them down. Can joy around visual representation produce greater focus, investment, and engagement in learning? I believe it can! Enjoy these thought-provoking resources from Sunni:

Sunni Brown’s Website

New York Times: Uncovering an Enigma Wrapped in a Doodle

TED Talk: Doodlers, Unite!

Book: The Doodle Revolution: Unlocking the Power to Think Differently

Book: Gamestorming: A Playbook For Innovators, Rule Breakers, & Game Changers