I used to use the question, “How do you eat an elephant?” quite a bit, but found kids just gave me funny looks…they didn’t seem to like the idea of an elephant being a meal, even in an analogical sense. It definitely wasn’t my original question; the internet attributes it to Desmond Tutu, but an ancient Chinese proverb about a journey beginning with a single step, is along the same lines.
The answer to the elephant is simple: one bite at a time.
Same with the journey. You aren’t going anywhere without that first step, and you aren’t going anywhere far except by taking one step at a time.
So now when I’m looking at a brick of text that a student has written, I tend to go with “You don’t eat a steak in one bite, do you? Let’s break that up into smaller pieces.” It seems to be more palatable to them. (lolololol.)
When I run, I sometimes find myself having gone too far and then know I have a looooong way back. It’s generally too embarrassing to call kid #2 to come get me with a vehicle, although that has happened before, so I try to persevere and think of it in smaller pieces. Just run to that next approach. To the corner. Turn the corner. Past the slough. To the next approach. Home.
Last year, we read Terry Fox’s story through the novel “Run” and I was reminded that this is how Terry viewed his journey. He knew he was going to run a marathon each day, but didn’t think of it as a whole. He just ran to the top of one hill to the next, setting small running goals that would add up to over 40km each day. A true growth mindset.
Today, I had to split wood for winter. We heat our house with a wood-burning fireplace, so the task is an inevitability of fall unless we want to freeze when winter comes! When I looked at the pile this morning, it seemed insurmountable. I knew it was going to take HOURS and HOURS.
And it did.
But I set smaller targets to get through. I’d count out a certain number of logs, then split them and take a break. I’d pile them into the wood shed until I had a wall covered, and then take a break. I set an alarm on my phone so that every hour I (you guessed it) I took a break. Lol. It might sound like I had a lot of breaks, but I also split and stacked wood for ten hours. My best guess is over 1700 pieces - I’m going to really feel it tomorrow - but that insurmountable pile of logs slowly and then completely disappeared.
Had I fixated on the immensity of the task and the size of the pile, in particular how long it was going to take me, I’m not sure I would have accomplished as much…especially knowing in hindsight that it would be the entire day! The work didn’t change, but by thinking about it in a manageable sense, my attitude toward it made it possible.
As educators, we are familiar with SMART goal setting. We take a task or problem, and word it so that it is SPECIFIC. By visualizing a clear and precise goal, it becomes achievable.
The goal also has to be MEASURABLE, although not necessarily numerical. In our school division, we are asked, “How do we know?” and I use it often with students. How do we know this is narrative writing? How do we know that the character is desperate? How do we know our goal is effective?
The ‘A’ in the SMART goal is ATTAINABLE. This is the one that I sometimes have difficulty with. If it is easily accomplished, perhaps it wasn’t the correct goal in the first place. Yet, if I have set an unrealistic and unattainable goal, I may find the whole process frustrating and give up. It’s a delicate balance!
The goal also has to be RELEVANT and to me, this might be the most important aspect of a SMART goal/task, especially with students. If there isn’t a compelling reason or authentic aspect to what we are doing, we risk student disengagement, and end up with compliance and hoop-jumping from our kids…and that’s not learning.
The last aspect is TIME-BOUND. I haven’t ran in a month. I haven’t been to the gym in even longer. I talk about starting up again but it’s in vague terms and very noncommittal. There are many excuses why: mostly it’s just been crazy busy! But thankfully I have someone who is very persistent, and we are hammering out our commitment to get back at it….and that includes a specific time aspect. (November 13, I promise!)
This fall, we did more visual goal setting as a staff. These are tied into our personal ‘passion projects’ and I have chosen to work on deepening relationships between our school and our elementary neighbors and community. It isn’t written as a SMART goal per se, but our planning definitely follows the same format. Getting it narrowed down and worded the way I liked it was just as agonizing as the first goal setting we did, but it is posted on my door and I am excited with the initial progress that is happening. (#teachernerd)
When working with kids, it’s so important to remember, and be cognizant about the fact, that they are easily overwhelmed by large tasks. This is why we look at writing as a process: the final product is just one part; why we ‘chunk’ tasks, just like Terry did with his daily run; why we use a ‘whole-part-whole’ strategy, introducing an idea and then scaffolding/working through its parts to have a stronger understanding of the ‘whole’ (and the context of the parts) when we get there.
It’s why each piece of writing, like this one, starts with an idea. Then a word. Then a sentence. And a paragraph. And another.
And a finish.
(Sometimes, it's even a good one.)
As you start your journey this week, remember it’s just a series of single steps…direct to the coffee pot….and straight through to Friday.
Oh, and everyone is welcome.
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