The Dolphin

In the style of Rafe Esquith, I start my year out with a string art project. Its a great way to teach culture. They have to sand pieces of wood, stain them (I learned to have them wear gloves), chose a design, hammer nails with a partner, then interlace string around the nails to fill in their image. We hang them on the wall until they take them home at the end of the year.

This project encapsulates the habits of mind, teamwork, perseverance, process-thinking, and excellence, that I want the year to be defined by. Its a great vehicle for teaching those principles. 

This time, I was most concerned with that last one--excellence. 

I had one of my students choose the silhouette of a dolphin. She finished it and brought it up to me, but upon looking it over, I realized she had made a mistake. She had put the nails in the correct place to articulate the dolphin's fin, but had filled in the gap between it and its body with string so the fin wasn't differentiated. 

And here I had to make a choice: do I let her turn it in, praise her for her hard work, and let it sit on the wall for the year? Its the first day of school--I want her to feel safe and validated. She had put so much work into stringing this and to ask her to restring it would be asking her to start half the project over again. I pictured her disappointment and frustration if I asked her to fix it. 

On the other hand, this was going to have to hang on the wall for the entire year. But beyond that, I was setting a precedent for what sort of work I was willing to accept, what my standard for quality was. 

How can a teacher weigh the two? Do I want this kid to feel encouraged right now or do I want to call them into better, more excellent work? Do I want to affirm their current ability or push them into more? Can I do both? 

Lets bring Ron Berger in. In his book "An Ethic of Excellence," he argues that we can't first build their esteem then focus on their work. He says,

It is through their own work that their self-esteem will grow. I don’t believe self-esteem is built on compliments. Students who are struggling or producing lousy work know exactly how poor their performance is—compliments never seem genuine. All the self-esteem activities and praise in the world won’t make them feel like proud students until they do something they can value.
— Ron Berger, An Ethic of Excellence

I get that. Its just that I am working with students I feel are fragile. Maybe I need to pay greater attention to their resiliency. I love that idea of not tying the production of excellent work to my compliments, of instilling an intrinsic value for excellent work.

 I just don't want to give them the impression that by meeting my standard they have achieved the goal. I don't want to be the determiner of quality work, which could become arbitrary, inconsistent, and therefore frustrating for the student. I want them to understand what excellent work looks like and go after it themselves, which I believe will happen by showing and pointing out the excellent work of others.

I hope to be able to simultaneously tell a student that I value them and the work they have done while also telling them I want them to go higher up and further in. To simultaneously say, "You are valuable," and "You can do better" seems to be a mark of a great teacher. I want to be able to do that.