Lessons from the Cube

“A good puzzle, it's a fair thing. Nobody is lying. It's very clear, and the problem depends just on you.” -ErnÅ‘ Rubik 

Anthony Brooks has it.  "It" is difficult to assess and quantify and goes by many different names. A word that seems to have recenlty gained significant support from the most highly regarded educational researchers is "grit".  Stanford professor, Angela Duckworth, a leading voice on the identification and fostering of academic competencies other than fixed intelligence, defines grit as "the perseverance and passion for long-term goals."

Anthony first picked up a Rubik's Cube six years ago, when he was a fourteen-year-old looking to stay busy on a long bus ride. Today, Anthony holds the world record for solving the Rubik's Cube- less
than seven seconds!

Since its mass-market introduction forty years ago, the "Cube" has befuddled and frustrated most of those that try to solve it.  Most of us have held a Cube in our hands, and surely not many of us solve it on our first attempt.  How long was it before you put it down and proclaimed defeat, never to pick it up again?  Or perhaps, not unlike people such as Anthony, you looked at the problem from different points of view, consulted an expert for insight, or did basic research on the internet for solutions.  In reality, we can all solve the Cube by following (and eventually memorizing if you want to solve it quickly) a set of algorithms.  For the "speedcubers" of the world, like Anthony, being able to solve the Cube quickly- and in some cases blindfolded- requires deliberate practice, focus, and an authentic interest in doing it.

The Rubik's Cube was the central focus of a recent science class activity at our school.  Two seventh grade students in Dr. Steneken's class were going to race each other; the winner being the first to solve a scrambled cube.  However, this competition was unusual in that one of the participants was not actually human, but a student-designed Lego robot.  I recall the winner solved the cube in less than thirty seconds- very impressive.  In my mind, it didn't matter if the winner was the student using his own hands, or the student who used a robot that he built. It was clear that both students had engaged in hours of preparation and practice to solve the problem.  I am sure they both encountered frustrations, obstacles and failure along the way.  Despite the difficulty, they persevered- and I assure you that for each of them this is only the beginning.  Through this process they have demonstrated to me, and to themselves, that they possess the grit that is required to achieve true academic success; that they know what it will take to solve all forms of puzzles and problems.

As a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania's School of Education myself, I am very familiar with the work of GSE graduate and professor, Angela Duckworth.  Having been an administrator in the middle school environment for the better part of a decade, I fully support her position that the ability to learn is not fixed, but that this can change with effort.  Having this "growth" mindset, allows for success in all endeavors- whether we are solving a forty year-old puzzle, building robots, or growing as learners and leaders.
Duckworth summarizes the importance of grit in this TED talk:

I believe that it is the role of  parents, teachers, administrators- to foster in our children the grittiness that Professor Duckworth references. We owe them this.  The best way to teach is to encourage and model.  So go find that cube, and give it another shot- you can do it, but you might fail (a lot) before you succeed.

 Related Resources:
Solving The Cube
The Cube's 40th Anniversary Celebration in Times Square
New York Times Profile on the Resurgence of the Rubik's Cube
Liberty Science Center's Rubik's Cube Exhibit
Professor Duckworth's Study on Grit
An Interview with Professor Duckworth (Educational Leadership, 2013)

Anthony Brooks in Times Square:


Agents of Change

I recently had the opportunity to visit the Father English Community Center in Paterson, NJ.  A few weeks prior a group of students in our school had organized a toy collection for the center and I wanted to see for myself who our students were helping and to investigate if there were other ways that we, our school community, could support the families that rely on the center for basic needs.  So a friend, and fervent supporter of youth service, and I drove down to visit with the director of the center.

The Father English Community Center, not unlike many similarly-focused centers in America's impoverished, urban centers, provides its surrounding communities with many services and programs including: continuing education and language courses; a full-day pre-K program, a wide variety of social services; clothing and furniture; and a food shelter.

Carlos runs the food pantry.  He is an inspiration. He has made it his life's work to build and maintain a food pantry that provides for 1000 people per month.  This food pantry is unique.  Typical pantries function like a cafeteria line; the person in need of food walks up to a counter and is given a supply of goods, usually differentiated to specific family needs (i.e. young children).  Over the years Carlos has created a pantry that looks more like a grocery store.  Visitors walk up and down aisles and using a point system pick up products that suit their family's needs and tastes.  It is an innovative concept that values both dignity and compassion. Meet Carlos:

After visiting with Carlos I couldn't stop thinking about the extraordinary work that he was doing and how I, representing a community that is more than willing to act, can help.  I was expecting Carlos to tell me to bring more canned goods, or provide assistance stocking shelves or giving out food.  Rather, Carlos simply told me to do what I can to support the Community Food Bank of New Jersey.  The Food Bank is where Carlos orders most of the food that is given to the customers, a term preferred by Carlos, of the pantry.  The Food Bank provides pantries with a wide variety of goods at significant discounts.  

So when our school's National Junior Honor Society was considering a benefactor of our annual Student-Faculty Charity Basketball Game the Food Bank was the overwhelming favorite.  Our students raised over $1700 for the event, all of it going to the Food Bank.  I can't wait to tell Carlos.

Service is a topic that I have written about in previous posts.  I think the concept of helping others, taking care of each other, is an essential understanding that all students need to develop.  To help foster this understanding we need to provide opportunities to serve others and to recognize those that lead by example, like Carlos. And, like Marirose.

For the past three years Marirose, a student at SMS, has helped organize a separate toy drive for a group called Tilly's Kids.  Marirose, along with a group of other civic-minded and gracious students, deliver the toys to students at their schools in Newark.  For many of these students, the toys, games and books they receive may be the only gifts they gift during the holidays.  As a nominee for the 2014 Prudential Spirit of Community Award, Marirose received the following letter:
I am thankful to Marirose for allowing me to recognize her in this forum, and for answering a few of my questions about her experience serving others:

 When did you start volunteering and serving other causes?  Why?
I started volunteering when I was in fourth grade.  I was tagging along with my older brothers who were volunteering.

 I noticed that many of your teammates and friends are also volunteering-how has this affected your relationships and friendships?

It has made my friendships much closer because we have volunteering in common.  I am really happy that my friends enjoy doing this as well.

What has service taught you?
It has taught me that when people complain about how bad they have it, they don’t realize how much worse other people have it.

You have seen first-hand the impact of poverty in America-what have you learned from this exposure, about people and prosperity?
It is easy to ignore problems when you don’t know about them.  Then, when you do know you feel obligated and want to help.  For example, I know children in poverty are counting on us to deliver gifts at Christmas and I can’t let them down.

Any advice for someone who would like to begin volunteering?  How can they get started?
I would advise someone new to try a lot of different opportunities to find out what they really love.  And, if possible, start volunteering with a friend!  Pass-it-Along always has opportunities on their website. Sometimes you can find your own way to help.  I have sold crafts and cupcakes to raise money for children with brain tumors. Also, Mrs. Garagliano, my 6th grade Ancient Civilizations teacher, helped me collect toys for Christmas gifts.  She also helped to collect and hand out gently used books to children at elementary schools in Newark.

How would you like to continue to serve as your proceed in high school and beyond?
In high school, I hope to continue to make a bigger impact.  I hope to always be able to use my talents to help others.  One of my next projects is to make “Blessing Bags” to send to Ethiopia where there are five million orphans.

You received a letter from the President…what does that mean to you?
I am honored to get this recognition.  I feel like it hasn’t been a sacrifice for me to spend free time volunteering.  It has been a privilege.  I have found that I love to help people.  Some of my best memories are from these times.

Although much younger than Carlos, Marirose is also an agent of change.  And she is one of many students in our school that have taken it upon themselves to bring their community "closer to its great promise".  

Related Resources:

Pass-It-Along:  As Marirose mentioned, many volunteering opportunities for students and families.

NJ Food Bank:  How you can help


Open For (and to) Business

I really enjoy watching Shark Tank.  If you have never seen an episode of Shark Tank the basic premise is that budding entrepreneurs present a pitch to a group of investors (sharks), hoping to acquire an investment in their business idea.  It has everything you want in an entertaining television show:  intrigue, drama, comedy, tension and excitement.  Getting a shark to invest in your company requires that you have not just a good idea but also a solid business plan.  Some contestants walk away from the experience with an investment deal with one (or more) of the sharks, while many others walk away with no interest from any of the sharks.  This is true reality television; developing a successful business and getting others to invest in your idea and plan is not easy and often can end in disappointment.  However, I would imagine that those who do leave disappointed use the experience as a learning exercise and become even more determined to change or adapt however necessary so that they can be successful.  This is most likely the case with any current (or past) business leader.  When Steve Jobs, of Apple, passed away, he was remembered as one of the business world's greatest innovators.  However, his road to success featured many wrong turns and deep potholes.  Jobs took the lessons from his failures to drive his pursuit of success.  

This month many of our students will be in a similar situation to the Shark Tank contestants.  They are participating in an entrepreneurial program called TREP$ (short for entrepreneurs).  Students
stay after school one day a week for a month to develop a basic level of financial acumen and then are charged with developing a business plan for an actual product.  The students, often working with a partner, then have to sell their product or service at the marketplace evening event.  Depending upon how the students market and present their products, students either make money or lose money.  It is a great program that creates a lot of interest and excitement within the school community.  For those that participate, it is an excellent learning experience that empowers students, rewards hard work and values creative and critical thinking. And like many Shark Tank contestants, not all TREP$ participants will achieve financial success.  This is okay.  They will, if they choose to, reflect on the mistakes made and the lessons learned to drive them closer to their goals.

On a recent episode of Shark Tank (linked below), two men asked the sharks to invest in their product, LockerBones.  LockerBones is a locker system and was invented by a father of a middleschooler, frustrated that she couldn't keep her organized.  I am confident that many of our students will watch this episode and say, "I could have done that!"  Yes, you could have.  Perhaps we will see the next "Lockerbones" at marketplace night.

"TREP$ is an awesome way to learn important business lessons, have fun, and even make money.  It is a great opportunity for kids to be taken seriously, so they can see people's reactions to their ideas, products, and creations."
-Robby R., Grade 8 

I love Robby's line about being "taken seriously".  I think that it is a good reminder to all of us that our students want to be treated as if their ideas, thoughts, and opinions are relevant and when we do we often get from our students a genuine desire to achieve.  A desire that is not motivated by grades, pressure, or expectations, but driven by the sheer thrill to create, invent and innovate---and "make MONEY" (and not get eaten by a shark)!

TREP$ Marketplace Nights
Grades 7 and 8: February 19 and 20
Grade 5: February 26 and 27
SMS Cafeteria, 6:30 PM

Related Resources:
Shark Tank episode featuring LockerBones (skip to minute 23:00)
TREP$ Website