Second Chances

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My best friend often says, “People deserve lots of second chances.”

“But why?” I ask, trying to grasp the concept. “At some point don’t you risk people taking advantage?”

“Walter, people do the best they can. It makes no sense making it harder on them.” I dedicate this blog post to my best friend and this wisdom I have come to adopt as my own.

In an age of cynicism and competition, I find the notion of second chances refreshing, intriguing even. But is it practical? Individually and collectively, how can we afford lots of second chances? Then again, are life and learning value equations? Is there some economic benefit to separating the men from the boys, so to speak? Or in reality, do we all rise to our own potential over time, given the chances and support we need to succeed?

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As I look back over a lifetime of opportunities and challenges, how many times did I nail anything on a first try? Not many. How many second chances have I used? How many mentors supported me as I tried and failed and tried again? How many practice sessions? How many retests? How many mulligans? How many “I’m sorrys”? How many times redeemed by forgiveness? More times than I can count. And that’s just my lifetime. How about yours?

Learners grow in expertise and understanding the closer and closer they get to learning targets. They approximate their aim, try to hit the target, make adjustments, and try again. The more they continuously refine their efforts, they not only get closer to the target, they learn about the area around the target, and about their aim. Both accurate and inaccurate, every attempt is new information learners integrate into their learning experience. It not only informs their current learning, it’s practical learning knowledge they can apply in new situations in the future. What are the conditions that allow this to happen?

  • Give yourself permission to take risks.
  • You are supported in making multiple attempts.
  • There are no value judgments of right or wrong, good or bad.
  • Both successful and unsuccessful attempts to reach your target are valued as learning.
  • The only requirement is continued improvement, incorporating new learning into existing understanding.

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One-chance, go-for-it-all, win-or-lose feats of skill may be a staple at carnivals, but they have no place in the classroom. At least on the boardwalk you can pick which games to play based on your perceived chances for success. Some games you can win if you’re willing to put down enough cash. Some games are rigged so the odds are against you. And some games are a flat-out sucker’s bet. If carnies gave their customers lots of second chances, they’d never turn a profit. Compare that with the ways we asses students. High-stakes tests reward those with skills that match the test format while penalizing those who demonstrate learning using alternative test formats or don’t perform well under pressure. Is this any way to allow all students to show what they know?

A generation ago, memorization of rote facts and mastery of discrete skills were the measurements of student success. Being accurate was the ideal, and this lent itself to the notion of testing as pass-or-fail snapshots in time. Now we can access such basic information on the fly without memorization, and new benchmarks measure higher level tasks. Assessments today should not measure quantifiable learning assets but sophisticated learning processes: problem solving and new product-development targets.

Where are the second chances in our current system? It isn’t acceptable to have students live and die by one-shot, high-stakes tests. It isn’t fair to label students based on those test results. It isn’t appropriate to build an entire year of learning around these tests, as if the test provides incentive to teach and learn. It isn’t realistic to expect all students to find success through the same learning methods, or to demonstrate what they’ve learned in the same ways. And it isn’t right to look a young person in the eye and tell them they are out of second chances … ever. We should be in the business of creating lots of second chances for our students.

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It’s no different in life once students are out of school. One of my favorite movies of all time is My Favorite Year (MGM, 1982), in which young staff writer Benjy Stone (Mark Linn-Baker) is charged with babysitting washed-up Hollywood star Alan Swann (Peter O’Toole) to ensure he will be sober, present, and ready to perform on the live TV variety show at the end of the week. Through the twists and turns of the plot, Stone and Swann become fast friends, in spite of the many close calls the actor’s larger-than-life persona precipitates. Benjy has Swann at the studio the night of the show, so that when the host is accosted by local thugs on the live set, Swann appears from up on a balcony, swings down onto the stage in full costume and sword, and helps the show’s star fend off the attack. As Swann basks in the redemption of the applauding audience, Benjy stands in the broadcast booth and looks on pensively: “The way I see him here, like this. This is the way I like to remember him. I think if you were to ask Alan Swann what was the single most gratifying moment in his life, he might have said this one right here. With Swann you forgive a lot, you know? I know.” In life, as in learning, we gain growth and understanding through second chances.

People deserve lots of second chances. Where would you be today without all of the second chances you have been afforded in life? Second chances are the pathway for all students to be college, career, and citizenship ready. As educators, we should all be the champions of second chances for young people everywhere.

Caring

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Caring makes all the difference in the world. Not a mood or an attitude…caring is a way of being. You either care or you don’t. It’s easy to care when something is important to you. But how about caring when it’s important to someone else? How about caring when there’s nothing in it for you, because it makes the world a better place? Caring is courageous.

Caring does not turn on and off. It doesn’t only count when it grabs your attention. It doesn’t matter just when you feel like it. It is something that can be seen from within regardless of the moment or the motivation. You either genuinely care or you don’t. It is more than feeling…it is action. Talk is cheap; caring leaves no doubt.

Caring3In order to be caring you have to have thought through what you are all about. You know why you are here…why you are in education…and why you make the choices you do. You have come to terms with what you can control and what you can’t…and you understand that even in the worst of circumstances you make a difference simply by caring.

How do you instill caring in your core? You have understanding, acceptance, empathy, compassion, perspective and a strong sense of who you are. You refrain from reaction to what is happening around you and thoughtfully respond in helpful ways. When all else fails, you simply seek to understand. Caring is the constant when all other variables conspire to make you act out of self-interest. Caring keeps you focused on what’s important.

You know that feeling of comfort when you are interacting with someone who cares…you feel reassured and you are willing to trust just a little more. You feel secure. You can focus on what’s important. Caring inspires caring in others; it brings out the best in all of us. Caring is contagious.

Caring4Caring is positive. It does not accept selfishness or the status quo. Caring does not make you a better person…it makes you make choices that make you a better person. It will not transform you all at once, but it will transform your life over time. Do not care about those things that reinforce negativity. That’s not caring…that’s rationalized resentment. It takes no effort to be cynical.

It takes effort to care. It requires discipline. Apathy is easy; you have to consciously catch yourself when you start to give into it. Over time, caring becomes habit…a part of you…you care about the right things for the right reasons and something happens…you are no longer controlled by things that drain you of your potential to make a positive difference in your life and in the lives of others.

When caring is in your core, life becomes easier, doors open for you, and you find fulfillment. Why? Because people recognize caring in others Worthwhile people respond to caring and want to experience it with you. These kinds of caring connections lead you to opportunities and possibilities you cannot find when you are mired in self-interest. Caring is born of gratitude.

Caring5If you’re happy with your lot in life, this message is not for you. But if you know in your heart that you are settling…struggling…searching for something better…caring is the key. It is a selfless way of being…a way to operate in your personal life…your professional life…with those closest to you and with complete strangers. Cynicism wants you to believe you can’t afford to care. I’m here to suggest that you can’t afford not to.

Caring is a way of being. Begin where you are. Care about what is good and right and self-affirming and let everything else go. You will look back one day and realize you have been transformed…because you chose to care about more than yourself.