Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Olympic Spirit

Like many Americans and people around the world, I've spent the better part of two weeks following the Winter Olympics. As I sit here anxiously awaiting the start of the gold medal hockey game, I truly feel the Olympic spirit. Even thought the Olympics has been thoroughly commercialized and includes, in the case of hockey and other sports, well-paid professional athletes, I would argue that there still is something very special about the Olympic games. As someone who believes in the power of sports, I would argue that the Olympics are an important political event, too, because they promote political understanding through athletic competition.
Political importance aside, you are probably wondering what, if anything, the Olympics can teach us about life in middle school? I think that answer lies in what the Olympics teaches us about courage, commitment, and determination.

I always feel more of a personal connection to Olympic athletes, many who toil for years and years with minimal recognition and even less financial support. They put in countless hours in pursuit of their dreams. They seem so much more like...everyone else. One of my early winter Olympic memories is the heart-wrenching saga of speedskater Dan Jansen. His sister died just hours before he took the ice in Calgary (1988) and he proceeded to fall, ruining his gold medal hopes. Not willing to give up on his dreams, Jansen trained for another opportunity 4 years later in Albertville, France...only to lose again and finish out of medal contention (4th place). But, Jansen simply would not give up. Knowing that the Olympics would be in 2 years instead of the customary 4 years (after 1992, the International Olympic Committee decided to alternate the winter and summer games), Jansen decided to stick it out and make one more run at a gold medal. When he took the ice in Lillehammer, Norway, he lost again in the race that he was favored to win (500 meters), leaving him one final race in his Olympic career...and an minimal chance of winning an Olympic medal. If you know about Jansen's career (of you've seen the Visa commercial throughout this Olympics), you know what happened next. He won the gold medal, and took a victory lap around the rink with his daughter, named Jane after his sister who passed away in 1988.
Therein lie the ultimate Olympic lessons that we can share with our middle school students:
1. Try your best even if no one is watching.
2. Do things for the right reasons, not just money and fame.
3. Win and lose with grace.
4. Never forget who you are and who you represent.
And most importantly,
5. Never give up on your dreams.

Thanks again for reading. As always, I welcome your comments. Enjoy the final two weeks before Spring Break,

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Fun at JH Gunn

One of the most exciting elements of middle school here at PDS is our partnership with JH Gunn Elementary School. Under the leadership & vision of Cindy Osborne, and a committed group of parent leaders, faculty, and students, PDS is getting a true taste of service learning. It is important to note the differences between service learning and community service, and how that impacts our students and faculty in such a positive way. Community service is a great benefit, too, but the goals and impact of service learning are different. According to the Center for Leadership & Service at the University of Florida, one of the key tenets of service learning is "the incorporation of the concept of mutuality, meaning that several parties are involved in the planning of the program...including students, faculty, and those being served." Another key part of service learning, is that the experience itself "fosters participant learning about the larger social issues that are driving the need for service..." The PDS-JH Gunn partnership is defined by these important tenets, and students & faculty at both schools benefit from working together.
My first experience visiting JH Gunn took place on Wednesday. Along with 38 students, 3 faculty members, and 10 parents, we spent time reading, writing, and eating lunch with 2nd graders. It is an understatement to say that I was impressed with the faculty and students at JH Gunn. From the minute we entered the building, you could tell that JH Gunn was a place where the great things happen. From inspiring quotes, to friendly staff, to prominently displayed student work, it was obvious that everyone at JH Gunn is committed to helping each and every student reach their educational potential.
Along with a group of 8th grade boys, Mr. Harper & I had the special opportunity to work with Mr. K's second grade class. What makes his class extra special is that it was ALL boys...yes, a group of 15 7 and 8 year-old boys!! Mr. K's class was well-behaved and lots of fun. For 30 minutes in the classroom, it was amazing to see our PDS students transform into big brothers, role models, and teachers...and to see a room filled with smiling 2nd graders. The good times continued over lunch, and we enjoyed hearing about life from the perspective of a 7 year-old. It is often said that "time flies when you are having fun," and that was clearly the case with our time spent at JH Gunn.
After getting on the bus, the 38 students spent a few minutes answering reflection questions. Reading these reflections only reinforced my belief that that the PDS-JH Gunn partnership is special. Our students talked about making people smile, enjoying the opportunity to read, write, and teach, and, most of all, hanging out with a fun group of students. In thinking about the success of this partnership, I think that we'd be hard-pressed to find a better way of teaching our middle school students so many important life lessons and "real world" skills. In the years ahead, there is no guarantee that our middle schoolers will remember what they learned in 6th, 7th, and 8th grade, but they will definitely remember their experiences working with JH Gunn Elementary School.
As always, I welcome your comments. Thanks again for reading,