Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Is it Initiative, Really?

I've been presenting a Monday Ponderance at assemblies since the beginning of last school year. Every once in awhile a student has quoted it or commented that they've remembered it in some similiar situation. Yesterday, though, I began an e-mail exchange with a 7th grade student who took the initiative to delve deeper into the meaning of the story. Below you'll see our exchange and I think you'll agree that this is the point of it all - the Honor Code, the discussions, the case studies, all of it - for conversations and thinking like this.

(Editor's Note: The story has been edited for text-speak, informal speech, and mechanical errors only)

Student: Dear Mr. Skeen, What does iniative (sic) mean?


Student: It does not have your annoyingly big word in the dictionary.

Skeen: You spelled it incorrectly: initiative. Now,

Student: Oh .... Personally, I don't think that initiative works with the story.

Skeen: An introductory act or step; leading action. The man wanted a job digging ditches. The job description said he needed experience, and he didn't have any. So, on his own, as "an introductory step," he began to dig trenches to practice and gain experience. You know, if you formalized your insight into an analysis of the story and the application of initiative, you could comment on my blog... (Editor's Note: This student would be the second to do so in two years...hint, hint)

Student: But isn't experience very different from an introductory step? Experience is more like a particular instance of personally encountering or undergoing something ( because I cite my sources ALL the time?)that fits the story. But it's not really a synonym of initiative so that doesn't work with the story.

Skeen: You're right, experience is not a synonym for initiative. The goal of the man was to gain experience. He couldn't gain experience in trench digging without doing it. So he took the initiative, the first step, to start a trench to gain that experience.

Student: But you are saying that he took initiative, which he did but he did not get experience so wouldn't it really be a waste? The man knows when they say experience, they mean real experience, not digging a trench in the woods. So, wouldn't it all be for nothing?

Skeen: The job was for a trench digger, so he went to dig a ditch in a tough plot of land. What better experience than choosing to dig a long ditch in a tough land? Why is this not appropriate experience for the job he was seeking?

Student: It doesn't work because when they asked for experience, they meant REAL experience, like already having a job in trench digging, not what he was doing. The man would sorta be lying to the people if he said he had experience, and if they gave him the job, that would be cheating.

Skeen: So you mean the act of digging a trench is insufficient experience? Is there more to the job of trench digger? If so, what skills does he need to be able to check off the experience box? I don't think he has cheated anyone by saying he has experience. He could be explicit in how he gained that experience, but I don't think that is lying.

Student: So, the thing that you said that you didn't think he was cheating, well that's an opinion and has no real content in an argument like this one. I think that real experience would be someone who was actually hired for a job as a trench digger. Trench diggers would need other qualifications, like getting along with people (since he probably wouldn't be digging a whole trench alone) and being able to work machinery that the company had (since he was using only a shovel). Because, if he couldn't work the machinery he could break it, or hurt himself and others. If he couldn't get along with people than digging the trench would take longer than it needed to.

Skeen: First, my statement is not an opinion but a fact based on the principle that to lie means not providing the truth to someone who is entitled to know it. The trench-business owner wanted experience. He was not explicit in what kind of experience. he is entitled to know if the man has experience and the man provided the truth that he does. OK, if we set aside the argument about whether going out and digging a trench is SUFFICIENT experience (you have to concede that digging a ditch is, in fact, experience even if it is not enough in your opinion) and get back to considering the point of whether his going out on his own and idgging a trench can be considered initiative. I believe it does decause it is an act he took on his own to better himself.

Student: But, you say that to lie means not to provide the truth to someone who is entitled to it. But the man who is hiring is completely entitled to the entire truth or else he may hire the man under false assumptions. Yes, the act he does may better himself, but it is not the BEST way to take initiative to get the job because it may not get him the job. Therefore, a better form of initiative would be to get a job at a trench digging site, perhaps not digging it but at least seeing how it was done.

Skeen: And we find ourselves back to the type of experience argument. However, in your original e-mail you were not satisfied the act of trench digging was initiative at all. Now you concede that it is, yet not the best. I think this is a different point and could be debated for a long time.....I hope you had fun with this exercise, because I did.

Student: It could be debated forever because there is no final answer, really. I do agree trench digging would give him experience, but not enough to apply for the job. This exercise is fun, we should have debates in actual classes.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Monday Ponderance: The Trench Digger

An elderly couple retired to the countryside - to a small isolated cottage overlooking some rugged and rocky heathland.

One early morning the woman saw from her window a young man dressed in working clothes walking on the heath, about a hundred yards away. He was carrying a spade and a small case, and he disappeared from view behind a copse of trees.

The woman thought no more about it but around the same time the next day she saw the man again, carrying his spade and a small case, and again he disappeared behind the copse.

The woman mentioned this to her husband, who said he was probably a farmer or gamekeeper setting traps, or performing some other country practice that would be perfectly normal, and so not to worry.

However after several more sightings of the young man with the spade over the next two weeks the woman persuaded her husband to take a stroll - early, before the man tended to arrive - to the copse of trees to investigate what he was doing.

There they found a surprisingly long and deep trench, rough and uneven at one end, becoming much neater and tidier towards the other end.

"How strange," the old lady said, "Why dig a trench here - and in such difficult rocky ground?" and her husband agreed.

Just then the young man appeared - earlier than his usual time.

"You're early," said the old woman, making light of their obvious curiosity, "We wondered what you were doing - and we also wondered what was in the case."

"I'm digging a trench," said the man, who continued, realising a bigger explanation was appropriate, "I'm actually learning how to dig a good trench, because the job I'm being interviewed for later today says that experience is essential - so I'm getting the experience. And the case - it's got my lunch in it."

He got the job.


We ask our students to take initiative each day. Today we asked them to ponder where they can take an extra step to make their own path. The more our students feel responsible for their own success, the more succesful they will be.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Integration of Ethics as the Foundation of Character Education

In an earlier post I presented the Honor House metaphor. That is, Honor at Calvert can be understood in terms of building a house. A solid foundation must be laid, scaffolding must be set up for the walls, and then bricks and mortar create the structure. At Calvert, the foundation is ethics education, the six "E's" providing support to faculty is the scaffolding, and seizing the teachable moments are the bricks and mortars of the Honor House.

Today, I'd like to delve into the conceptual foundation of Honor at Calvert: ethic integration. Typically, a cornerstone is the symbolic starting point of any "monumental building." In this case there is one cornerstone, curriculum integration, which is the figurative starting point, but our Honor House has three other cornerstones which are essential to our foundation: physical space, tradition, and the Dean's office.

The gold standard of character education is to have ethics interwoven into the curriculum of the school. This means having concrete and pointed application of ethic discussion in the lesson/unit plans. This could manifest itself in history as a paper on the ethics of historical decisions or prevailing philosophy, in English as a discussion of characters' motivation in literature, in science as a debate on the ethics of a scientific breakthrough and the ramifications for society, and in math as a project on the manipulation of data to serve some purpose.

These lesson plans, and this integration as a whole, will (and should) always be a work in progress. Educators should strive to link their curriculum to ethics because our students' future will necessitate a solid understanding of honor in their flat, global, and constantly shifting world.

Along with curriculum integration, we integrate honor into the lives of our students in three other ways. First, we have adapted the physical space of the school to reflect the values of the honor code: selfless servants, moral courage, and commitment. The beams in the hallways have the phrases painted across them to remind our students that honor does not end when they walk out of the classroom. Additionally, we post the Honor Code in every classroom.

Second, we have started various traditions attached to the Honor Code meant to ingrain the ideas of the code in our students. Every student must write the Honor Contract ( I have acted honorably) to any quiz or test. This physical act of giving one's word is another physical reminder that the Honor Code is real and meaningful: the student's word means something. We also have a Monday Ponderance during assembly each week to highlight some aspect of the Honor Code. Advisories often discuss these thoughts in their meetings each week. Finally, we created a community outreach curriculum which allows the students to put the Honor Code into practice.

Third, the Dean's office is charged with creating and maintaining a community program which accounts for all the "other" times (transition time, lunch/recess, study hall, after school, athletics). The key is to work with all the constituencies on creating a common language and keeping that message on point. The Dean's office is also responsible for setting a path for the community. A hugely important part of the Dean's role is leading reflection of the Honor Code and its application, so that our foundation can be the best possible for all involved.

The integration of ethics is ongoing at Calvert. While our work will never end, we can see the results in the type of students we send off to high school. They are confident, capable, and caring and a part of that is the result of developing the core values of the Honor Code at Calvert, which began with the foundation of ethic integration.