I accomplished my goal…and it was awful.

resilienceI’ve confessed before how much I suck at running. It’s true. I’m really not being modest. I’m slow. It hurts. It’s discouraging. And yet, last month I ran a marathon. Okay, that sounds better than it actually was. It’s true I did complete the 26.2-mile distance, and people have been incredibly kind to pat me on the back and tell me how awesome I am to have finished it. And yet, I’m not happy with my accomplishment at all.

My race day was awful. In the weeks leading up to the race, my stomach didn’t play nicely. I tapered my runs. I took my supplements. I watched my diet and my hydration. I did everything I knew to do in anticipation of my race on December 6th, but I still found myself in my doctor’s office on the afternoon of December 5th watching as he shook his head and said, “Are you sure you want to do this?”

I did.

The first 15 miles of the race went well. I ran right along with my pacer. I cheered my fellow runners on. I thanked volunteers and hugged friends who’d come out to support our cause. I felt great. My energy level was good, and my spirits were high. I doing it. Mile 16 changed everything. At the end of 15, I stopped to go to the bathroom. My pacer ran ahead, but I wasn’t worried thought I could catch up with her. I never did.

Mile 16 was awful. My stomach started cramping, and my legs, feet, and lower back began to hurt. I had to stop for the bathroom again at the next water station. Honestly, if a friend hadn’t been there to encourage me to go on, I probably would have quit. I certainly felt like giving up. Miles 17-21 consisted of a little running, some walking, regular Porta-Potty stopping, and lots of grumbling. I expected to see my family at mile 19, but falling off pace meant missing their cheering faces, too. I trudged on.

I don’t remember much of the last five miles. I know I ran more than I walked, and I know every single step hurt. A lot. Thankfully, I didn’t have to stop at the toilets during the last few miles. There was nothing left in my system. I crossed the finish line in 5:42:48. I wasn’t happy or proud, but I was finished. I’d been looking forward to the race for months. I’d trained my body. I’d raised money for a great cause. I wanted to feel good about it all, but I didn’t. I just felt awful. Yes, I’d finished the marathon; I’d technically accomplished my goal. But, the experience didn’t met my expectations, and I’m a little sad and discouraged as a result.

Where does this leave me as a runner? I’m not sure yet, but I’m finding it tough to lace up my Brooks. What do you do when you’ve accomplished a goal, and it’s left you feeling bleh?

Why I Run

Why I runA few years ago, my friend Todd told me that he and another friend had started training for their first half marathon. They had just finished a Couch to 5K program and were looking for a new challenge. As I listened to my friend, I realized I was jealous. My friend was getting in shape and I wasn’t. He was taking care of himself and I wasn’t. In fact, I was headed in the opposite direction, and I needed to do something about it. School was almost out for summer so I bought some Nike running shoes at the nearest outlet store, downloaded a #C25K app for my iPhone, and hit my neighborhood streets. By the time summer ended, I was ready for a 5K race and feeling better about my physical health.

I started running for health reasons. I needed to lower my cholesterol; I wanted to lose some weight. I hoped it might help me live long enough to escort my daughter down the aisle at her wedding. My motives were primarily selfish, but they got me out the front door to the street each morning. They helped me accomplish a few goals and brought others within reach.

So I was running right along somewhat proud of my accomplishments when I realized something: I’m a terrible runner. I’m not being humble. I’m really not. I wish I were just being hard on myself, but I’m not. I suck at running. I’m awful at it. I’m slow–painfully slow, and it doesn’t bring me lots of joy the way it does many of my runner friends. Instead, I see running as really hard work and on most days I’d rather crawl back under the covers when my alarm sounds at 4:30 AM.

Races are usually discouraging. More people pass me than I am able to pass, and my personal records are beyond my reach these days. I cannot remember the last time I beat my best time at any distance.

I’ve also become injury prone. I suffer from bad knees and take supplements to relieve the joint pain. Last year, when I complained to my doctor about some neck and upper back pain, he noticed my shoulders are somewhat asymmetrical. X-rays confirmed a mild case of scoliosis so now my recovery from long runs often includes taking a muscle relaxer, and I hate the way it makes me feel.

Running is hard. I suck at it. It hurts, and I find it completely discouraging. So, why do I run? Why put myself through it? I run because I suck at it. I suck, but I keep trying to get better.

I’m competent at most of what I choose to do in life. I’m pretty confident in all my roles. For example, I’m a pretty good teacher. I know how to develop my students’ thinking. I know how to design learning experiences and how to manage a learning environment. I also know my subject well. I love reading and writing, and I know what it takes to be a good reader and writer. I’m able to develop strong relationships with my students and my colleagues. And I’m able to leverage these things to continually improve my practice. Being in a classroom is “in my wheelhouse.”

However, I know the same isn’t true for all my students. For many of them, being in a classroom is hard work. School is discouraging. When their alarms go off each morning, they want to crawl back under the covers and not get up for school. They may find my class to be painful or uncomfortable. They may think they “suck” at reading and writing. They may have learning difficulties to overcome each day, and they may get tired of learning always being so hard.

So I run. I run to empathize. I run to better understand. I run because quitting isn’t always an option. Running is hard, but I’m a better teacher having ran.

Dream. Lead. Leave a legacy.

Wade BWI only have a few minutes to write. This weekend, I sacrificed my normal writing time to take my son and a couple of students to the HopeWorks Breakfast on Saturday morning. One of my classes is working on project-based learning related to issues of chronic unemployment. My friend Ron Wade, the executive director of HopeWorks, graciously visited our class and talked about the problem. HopeWorks is a faith-based, non-profit organization serving the poor through holistic, outreach programs designed “to develop individual worth, encourage personal responsibility and promote the honor and value of work.”

The breakfast is an annual fundraising event for the organization, and Bill Courtney was the keynote speaker. Courtney is the football coach featured in the 2012 Academy Award-winning documentary Undefeated. If you haven’t seen the film, you can click on the link below for a Quietube version of the trailer.

UNDEFEATED (The Official Trailer of the Oscar Winning Documentary)

The film is worth seeing and Coach Courtney is worth hearing in person. His words inspired me. Coach Courtney told us to encourage the weakest among us to dream, to lead by not waiting for someone else to make a difference, and to leave a legacy by investing in others. HopeWorks does this. Teachers do this, too, especially our teachers working in some of our poorest schools.

A photo of my notes from the breakfast is below.

Courtney Notes

The Threads That Run Through: Understanding Conflict


At PDS we have outlined overarching themes for each grade level. First graders examine similarities and differences, and  second grade students survey connections. Third graders take a look at systems while fourth graders study innovation. In fifth grade students investigate perspectives, and in sixth grade we analyze conflict.

Conflict is at the center of every great story, both in fiction and life, and our most honorable heroes face animosity with courage, humility, and grace.

In our 6th grade reading class, we look at conflicts in literature and in our world. We begin the year reviewing the four different types of conflict we see in stories. A character may have a clash with another character (Man vs. Man), or he may struggle in his own heart or mind (Man vs. Self). Sometimes a protagonist contends with difficult elements in the environment (Man vs. Nature), or he may stand against his culture or community (Man vs. Society). As we read, we find different types of conflicts and mark them in our books discussing them as we go. We also try to make connections between the specific conflicts we see in the text and those we see in the world.

Our assigned summer book Surviving Hitler contains many examples of each type of conflict. Our boys understand and connect with the story and it serves as a fantastic introduction to World War II and our 6th grade social studies curriculum. In social studies our boys explore major global conflicts in the 20th century asking “Is war ever justified?” 

While reading I Am David in the first trimester, we look closely at the man vs. nature and man vs. self conflicts David faces escaping the Communist concentration camp and fleeing to Denmark. The boys further consider man vs. self conflicts as they create their “I Am” projects reflecting on their own internal conflicts.

In the second trimester, we consider man vs. man and man vs. society conflicts. As an introduction we look at primary documents examining pictures from the American Civil Rights movement. (Last year we visited the National Civil Rights Museum, but we were unable to do that this year because of renovations.) Then, we read The Watsons Go to Birmingham–1963. Most of the book focuses on man vs. man conflicts (Byron vs. everyone), but there are several man vs. society conflicts as well. After reading Watsons, we inquire into apartheid-era South Africa before reading Naidoo’s Journey to Jo’burg. With Jo’burg we focus mostly on man vs. society conflicts and investigate the lasting economic effects of apartheid.

The study of conflicts continues in the third trimester as the boys select from books that further our inquiry. During both the second and third trimesters, we also complete several small group projects. The projects serve dual purposes. First, they allow the students to show their understanding of the books in a more authentic–creative way. Second, it offers the boys the opportunity to work through real conflict. I rarely allow the boys to complete a project alone. They must work with a partner(s) on their project and hold one another accountable for the work as they go. I try not to interfere unless necessary. They must develop the ability to share ideas and collaborate. They must learn to give positive and negative feedback to their peers (via the Ladder of Feedback protocol).

Why do I want my students to understand conflict? I want my students to recognize different problems in the world and challenge the way things are. I hope that by better understanding conflict they will develop the character and determination needed to create change. Perhaps they will learn to engage problems and not flee from them, and hopefully my students will learn to persevere through challenges to grow deeper and become more capable leaders. William Ellery Channing said, “. . . difficulties are meant to rouse, not discourage. The human spirit is to grow strong by conflict (“Self-Culture,” September 1838). I hope my students develop resolve.

I’m still learning the best way to scaffold and design the learning activities to help my students develop a deep understanding of conflict–and I’m still working on teaching ways to resolve conflict into the class, too. Assessment of student understanding is a weakness, and I need to make changes moving forward. However, I’m pleased with the progress of the class overall. I need to develop and refine things further, but we are on the right track.

This is the last post in a series of reflections on the throughlines for my 6th grade reading class. Check out the overview of the series or the posts on thoughtfulnessmaking connections, and student voice.

Running Thoughts: Failure, Grit, and Where to Begin

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This morning I ran 5.05 miles in 48:33 (according to my RunKeeper app). I’m still pretty sore from Sunday’s long run, and my plantar fasciitis continues to act up–but I forgot my night split last night.

As I ran this morning I continued to think about Thomas Hoerr’s presentation yesterday at #TAIS12 on “What If the Secret of Success Is Failure?” I recognize how trendy it is to discuss failure and grit right now in education circles, and I get it. Grit is one of the most important characteristics of a successful person. If it’s important, what are we doing in schools to help our students develop grit? I think it’s a valuable conversation, and I appreciate Hoerr pointing us to some great resources for further investigation. His presentation synthesized Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character and Angela Duckworth’s TEDx talk
“True Grit: Can Perseverance be Taught?” with a little Carol Dweck thrown in for good measure.

I find this information all quite compelling, yet I’m left wondering what the implications are for my students and our classroom. I teach a significant number of students that Hoerr identifies as “high flyers”–students who are highly motivated and been primarily successful academically. For many, the success comes easily. So what should I do? How do I ensure that the develop the perseverance and grit needed to succeed in the world beyond our school? Do I even possess these skills? I’m not sure. My track record with all this running is spotty at best.

Is this even something I should tackle if my school has yet to make it a serious priority? We do have a life skill standard that states a student should “persist when presented with a challenging task.” However, I’m not sure how frequently or how well we have communicated with parents and students how important having to struggle is to developing this skill. Perhaps that’s where I should begin with the boys. Maybe as we move to the second semester, we need to spend just a few days talking about these ideas, viewing Duckworth’s talk, and exploring the value of failure. Hmm.

Any thoughts? I’d love to hear from you.

#TAIS12 “What If the Secret of Success Is Failure?” by Thomas R. Hoerr

  1. Today, I’m at the Tennessee Association of Independent Schools conference at The Hutchison School. I just attended a fascinating session by Thomas Hoerr from New City School entitled “What If the Secret of Success Is Failure?” The guiding question of the session was “Should an educator ever strive to cause a student to be frustrated or, even,  fail?” I am really interested in the ideas Dr. Hoerr shared even though the “embrace failure” mantra is clearly a vogue topic in education circles.
  2. Instead of taking notes I tried to send out several tweets from the session. I also decided to play and tinker with Storify today as I learn.
  3. PDSHeadmaster
    Preparing to attend session by Dr. Thomas Hoerr about failure being the key to success. #tais12
  4. lauradearman
    #tais12 when kids leave without ever having experienced failure, we’ve done them a disservice-Tom Hoerr
  5. Philip_Cummings
    What if the Secret to Success Is Failure? – NYTimes http://goo.gl/fK8JL (h/t Thomas Hoerr) #TAIS12
  6. PDSHeadmaster
    Students who get perfect SAT scores often haven’t developed capacity to handle difficult moments, and this hampers them. #tais12
  7. Philip_Cummings
    How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character: Paul Tough | Amazon http://goo.gl/DhIup #TAIS12
  8. Philip_Cummings
    True Grit: Can Perseverance be Taught? – Angela Lee Duckworth, Ph.D – YouTube http://goo.gl/sy4hQ #TAIS12
  9. PDSHeadmaster
    Angela Duckworth at UPenn: self control more reliable predictor of GPA than IQ. #tais12
  10. PDSHeadmaster
    Grit is overcoming boredom, frustration and failure, according to Angela Duckworth at UPenn. #tais12
  11. lauradearman
    #tais12 GRIT can and must be taught-Tom Hoerr
  12. jenhunt7
    Learning about failure… how gritty are you? http://www.sas.upenn.edu/~duckwort/ #tais2012 http://twitter.com/jenhunt7/status/265496675139866624/photo/1 #tais12
  13. jenhunt7
    Grit = overcoming boredom, frustration, and failure. #tais12
  14. jenhunt7
    In order to overcome boredom, frustration, and failure, kids first need to experience them. Yet we are trained to avoid them! #tais12
  15. Philip_Cummings
    “Failure happens all the time…” ~ Mia Hamm | BrainyQuote http://goo.gl/Ix668 #TAIS12
  16. PDSHeadmaster
    Developing grit is especially a challenge for children for whom school comes easily. #tais12
  17. PDSHeadmaster
    What develops grit: stretch goals, growth mindset, being out of comfort zone, praise effort not results, failure is ok. #tais12
  18. PDSHeadmaster
    Adults need to model risk taking & talking about their failures. They should include grit/failure in their daily conversations. #tais12
  19. Philip_Cummings
    “Students should know that part of their learning is learning how to respond to failure.” ~ Thomas Hoerr #TAIS12

Running Thoughts: Staging a Comeback

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I ran 8 miles in 1:20 this morning–quite an accomplishment considering how little I have run over the past month. October was tough month, and I’m not certain why. My home life was great. School life was great. I really could not explain why I felt so blah. Perhaps it was just the changing of the season, but I spent a significant portion of the month battling the blues. I didn’t want to run. I didn’t want to get out of bed. I missed both 10-mile races of the Road Race Series and my training ground to a halt. Twice I awoke early before school and dressed to run, but the plantar fasciitis in my right foot convinced me simply to go back to bed. I may have stayed there, too, were it not for Debbie. Last Sunday morning, she forced me out of the house and even mounted a bicycle to ride along with me as I ran. Have I mentioned how well I married?

In less that 27 days, I will run my first half-marathon. I have miles of training to accomplish before then, but I’m going to do it. Accomplishing the 8 mile long run this morning helps. Finishing it at a 10 minute per mile pace is extra encouraging. I’ll be sleeping in a plantar fasciitis splint for the next few weeks, stretching and strengthening as much as possible, and probably wearing a brace and/or orthotics. I’m staging a comeback I am, and I plan to succeed at it.

What does this have to do with teaching and learning? I’m not sure, but feel free to chime in with your thoughts.

Allotted Writing Time: 25 minutes 

Running Thoughts: Grit

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This morning I ran 5.05 miles in 52:41. It wasn’t my best time for 5 miles, but it was a much-needed improvement over Monday’s awful run. I was frustrated after Monday’s run. I was ready to give up. (I give special thanks to Scott Elias and Phyllis Moore for the encouragement they sent my way via Twitter.)

I could make lots of excuses for why Monday’s run was sub par. In fact, I think I will. It was hot, humid, and later in the day than I typically run. I had injured a toe, and I had taken too many days off. Regardless of all these factors, it was terrible run. I was miserable, and two-thirds of the way through my run I quit. I couldn’t finish. I was ticked. My runner’s ego (Is that a thing?) bruised. I had been training for months and after Monday it felt as though it had all been a waste. I had set a myself a distance goal, then failed to reach it. I wanted to quit, to pitch my Brooks in the garbage.

Why do I bother waking at 4:45 AM, again? What’s the point?

Today was different, though. I forced myself out of bed this morning and hit the streets again. The road was dark, quiet, lonely; my body was tired. I set my running app for a 5 mile distance run then headed into the darkness. It wasn’t pretty. At the 2-mile mark I tired, but I continued making good time. At the 3-mile mark my pace slowed, but I keep going. As I finished the fourth mile, I grit my teeth and told myself “I will finish this.” Stride by stride, I did.

Talk of “embracing failure” is all the rage in my learning spaces these days. I get it. We want students to understand things won’t always be easy. We desire for them to be comfortable taking risks and making mistakes. We hope to build their resilience–their grit. None of this is bad. Perhaps, it’s even good. I know I’ve waved the flag for this cause myself. But let’s be careful not to glamorize failure. Failure hurts. It shakes the core. Failure sucks.

Sure. We must challenge ourselves as teachers, and we should push our students, too. Perhaps, we should occasionally be less helpful and more often set the bar beyond their reach. I”m certain we should discuss handling setbacks and encourage their stick-to-it-iveness. But let’s be careful how we talk of failure. Failure, especially on a grand scale, isn’t pretty. It’s not cool or glamorous. It is crushing. It hurts.

So yes, let’s teach our kids to be resilient. Let them know success requires grit and determination, achievement involves overcoming struggles and mistakes. But let’s not overly romanticize failure. I’ll skip the embrace, as well.

Writing Time Limit: 45 minutes.

Running Thoughts are “process” posts of the thoughts I have while running. Often, they relate to my job as a school teacher. Running thoughts are just that–running, a thinking aloud about ideas I have. They are not fully formulated or even polished an are very much in the developing phase. By all means please consider them, challenge them, or help me clarify them. Just don’t hold me too them. The oxygen is needed in my muscles and likely is lacking from my brain. As always, I’d love to hear from you.