Resilience, Optimism, and Summer

Michael Simpson, Lower School Head, writes a mid-summer blog about tackling seemingly impossible tasks. There is so much to be gained!

School is only ten months. What about the other two? What’s to be gained? For me, it means the opportunity to teach! I can offer a Summer on the Hill class on any topic, as there is no Summer on the Hill “curriculum” to fulfill. Learning objectives are mine to decide!

In July I taught a two-week course on learning to map the USA from memory. At the beginning of the week, I asked my six students to draw and label the United States on a blank piece of paper. Depending on your point of view, the results are either concerning or hilarious. Five out of six caused a chuckle and comments like, “Idaho is next to Massachusetts?” or “Why is every state except Texas and Florida round?” Even the whiz who already knew all the states and capitals could not create a map beyond some wavy lines within an outline of the general shape of the United States. Six classes later, every student can draw an accurate map of the country, plan a color path with only four colors (most USA maps use five), and label all the states with ease. They’ve even become critics of their own work, expressing frustration when the shapes on the paper do not match what they see in their mind’s eye: “I can’t make Maryland look exactly right!” Nevertheless, the results are beautiful maps, works of art the students created without looking at a map of the USA.

There is no doubt these students will go forward with a strong knowledge of the geography of the United States. This may be useful to them in future classes, but the best part is the boost in confidence—not just about geography, but about a seemingly gargantuan task. Even though they chose the class and were eager to begin, when asked if they would be label to draw the USA from memory by the end, they responded, “No way!” “Impossible!” But they did it. As a result, they have become more confident about taking on a challenge. On the day they drew their maps, I heard a steady refrain of “I am so proud of myself!” And that’s the part—beyond the geography—that I hope stays with them as they move on through school.

If we are going to challenge children and help them learn perseverance, courage, and vision, then confidence-building experiences are crucial. And to truly build confidence, part 1 is that children (and adults!) must succeed at a challenge that is authentically difficult. Confidence gained from just being good at something is superficial and does not transfer to other experiences—it only applies to that subject. Part 2 of the confidence building is to have the opportunity to work though failure and still reach success. As Tim Allen tells his young superhero partners in Zoom after the villain has repulsed their initial effort to capture him, “Don’t you know the superhero secret? The first plan never works!” When we experience setbacks and frustration during the process and still come out with a victory, we are imprinted with resilience and optimism.

Summer is a prime time for these confidence building experiences, either through self initiated projects fueled by passion for a subject, an intriguing summer class, or experiences at summer camp. Hopefully every August each child returns to school with a little more “I can do it” and continues to build on it throughout the year.

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