-previously posted January 18, 2016 by Jack M. Jose
In reflection, there are many things that are unusual about this scene: The morning of the first day of our annual fall staff retreat, I was seated cross-legged on the floor in front of my staff, presenting the Gamble Great Lesson, and I was crying.
I would like to claim I never cry at work. It is, at least, unusual.
I wasn’t alone. Others were crying too. Crying partially because that next to last part of our story is exceptionally sad; the untimely death of two students in the same year deeply affected our school. Crying also because we needed to. In the moment of our most intense sorrow, or the series of endless moments of dealing with grieving students and parents, there simply had not been time to cry. And this time – the crying together – illustrated precisely why we need to tell the Gamble story over and over again, as it changes and grows.
Embedded deep in the Montessori philosophy, including student-directed learning , the Socratic method of questioning and the Adlerian concept of seminar, is an understanding that humans are naturally drawn to explore life’s great mysteries. We want to know the origins of the universe, the origins of life and human beings, how we started to communicate, and the origins of math. In these Montessori great lessons are the roots of the academic disciplines of science, history, reading and writing, and math. And those five stories already exist and are overtly taught to students as part of Montessori elementary philosophy.
Adolescents deeply feel the need to belong and they have a yearning for deep connection. So just as there is a great lesson for each discipline, it is appropriate to create a story to help students (and staff) understand that they are part of something larger – in this case, a school with a short but powerful history. This was the genesis of the Gamble Great Lesson: if students and staff can understand why the school exists and our core values, and will accept our invitation to belong and make their mark in the school, everyone benefits. When a person feels deep connection to a place or an idea, when they feel they belong, it is a sort of magic. It is the basis of grit, and hard work, and victory … and vulnerability. It makes it safe to try, and safe to fail, and even safe to not fight.
At its core, the Angels and Superheroes blog exists to tell the story of a group of educators at one school, and their collective experiences finding success with individual students or with particular strategies or practices. The best stories are, after all, often about one person. “Stories help people feel acknowledged, connected, and less alone,” Annette Simmons asserts in her book Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins. She’s right. Only when we start talking about our individual work, our success and our failures, can we begin to see our common human experience.
Once we find our common ground, we are better prepared to learn from each other, challenge each other fearlessly, and grow professionally. If we stop telling our story, if we withdraw ourselves from the conversation, we shrivel into nothingness. No matter how strong our concern for our students, the reclusive teacher is no more than a gollum, praising a precious ring in the darkness – a ring that merely brings longevity to the one who owns it in secret.
But when we share our stories, or pass on the stories of others, we knit ourselves together in a tapestry of the history of education. This summer I had the opportunity to by taught by Martha McDermott. She is a raconteur of the first order, and – once I settled in past her deep Irish accent and could understand what she was saying – I realized that each of her vignettes from her past experience was pushing myself and the other educators in the room to understand deep truths. What was true for one teacher and one child, was true for the teacher-child relationship across time. This notion is made more poignant by recalling that she was taught by Claude Clairemont, who in turn was taught by Maria Montessori.
A story shortens the cord of time, and ties decades in a neat metaphorical bow, calling forth our past to be present.
When we started this process of telling our story, it felt artificial. It felt wrong. Not like bragging exactly, but like needless mythologizing. Krista encouraged me to write it, and I recall offering some resistance, and then just going along on a lark. I thought it would be an interesting mental exercise, and give me a chance to write a bit more creatively than lengthy emails to parents, or the weekly bulletin.
I thought it would be insignificant.
I was wrong.
And what better evidence than the tears in my employees’ faces – those who knew the students involved, and those who did not but nonetheless were heartbroken by the story that included the death of two students – and now includes another.
This story, however, is more than a collection of memorable events both negative and positive, though it has those too. It includes our story from the time we were still essentially just an idea, and is updated each year with events more significant or, in many cases, more emblematic of the community we have created. There are plenty of rich details.
Gamble Montessori was created in 2005, and I came to the school in 2009, so we can tell the story from the inception, as a proposal from some parents. It includes our slow growth over time, the stories of students and staff who shaped our character, and our academic successes. There are moments where we show how we became who we are. There are responses to implicit criticism of our school, and pre-emptive strikes against those who suggest that deep feeling should somehow be separate from the work we do as educators.
There is great joy. A first state championship was recently added to the story, and already our story contained a team that spent a quarter of a basketball game letting one beloved teammate score his only high school basket. And there is also deep sadness.
This is interesting to me: retelling the story creates the opposite reaction in me than what I would expect. When I tell the story again and again, instead of becoming routine or mundane, it gains almost mythological status. The associated emotions are heightened instead of dulled. I choke up sentences in advance of the lines that draw the same emotion from the listener.
Ralph Ellison said that when we touch deep sadness repeatedly, or “finger the jagged edge” as he memorably put it, we are not allowing it to pass or fade. This is the heart of the blues as a musical form, or as a written form exemplified by Ellison himself, or as a spoken form utilized by Colonel West. When we repeat a theme, especially one that carries deep emotion, instead of growing dull, it retains its sharp edge, it retains its ability to cut.
This is true of great happiness as well. Our remembered celebration allows us to celebrate again, and the triumph of one student over a challenging situation becomes the hope for triumph in every student.
You should work to tell the story of your school, or your classroom, or your team. And you should tell it at the start of every year.
Key Components of our Great Lesson
- an invitation to see the school as someplace unique, and to enter the storytelling mindset
- a brief history of key events in the school’s history
- reference to key individuals whose contributions helped shape the history and character of the school
- celebrating the students who have made a profound impact on the character of the school
- recognition of moments of joy, triumph, sorrow, and loss
- an invitation to make a mark on the school through individual contribution and to view the community through the lens of the stories that have been chosen
No video of the Gamble Creation Story exists. It is most powerful because it is told in person. However, in the summer of 2015 I had the opportunity to tell part of the Gamble Creation story at the Know Theatre in Cincinnati. It was an installment of the True____ Series called “TrueGamble”. You can view it here.
I don’t promise (or threaten) that crying is part of the process. That doesn’t demonstrate success or failure, exactly. However, in our case, the Gamble Great Lesson still had something to teach us: the act of telling our story is powerfully therapeutic and cathartic.