A guest blog is written for Peter Dewitt’s “Finding Common Ground” column in Education Week
Where does perfection come from?
Why do even the youngest of students believe they are expected to be perfect?
Does come from within or from the adults around them?
What is perfection? The word itself comes from “perficere,” a Latin word meaning to complete or finish. Over time, however, perfection has taken on a more pernicious meaning. In today’s terms, perfection has come to mean without fault, which in turn assumes that there is one right way to function or be in the world, and that mistakes (faults) are to be avoided at all costs.
We see this definition of perfection played out in our industrialized classrooms, where all students are expected to learn the same things, in the same way, on the same schedule. This mindset is further reinforced by standardized testing, which delivers the demoralizing message that some are better than others, and encourages competition, conformity and self-blame.
Rather than risk failure, students shut down their curiosity and creativity, becoming passive recipients of information that they then regurgitate on tests. This approach flies in the face of how human beings learn (we are emotion-driven, trial-and-error learners) and fails to prepare students for a world in which creative collaboration, innovative thinking and flexibility are the most sought after qualities in the workplace.
Back in 2010, as I was beginning my journey as a children’s book author, I had little or no conscious awareness of perfectionism. Like most of my peers, I was a byproduct of the skill, drill, test and repeat model that today’s students are struggling with. While I understood intellectually that no one is perfect, that didn’t stop me, or my peers, from judging me harshly for making mistakes. I joked that I was a recovering perfectionist, but jokes did nothing to alleviate my suspicions that I would never be “good enough.”
Fast forward to 2013. I had been invited to read from my book, Lead with Your Heart, to a combined class of first, second and third graders in Bolingbrook, Illinois. Following the reading I planned to teach the kids how to draw the main character in the book, a big, black pit bull named Lance.
After the reading, the kids raced to their cubbies to get pencils, paper and Crayons so we could start drawing. Excited chatter filled the air as they voted on which dog to draw. When I asked if they were ready to get started, a resounding, “Yes!” shook the classroom walls.
Imagine my surprise when just a few minutes into the exercise the kids’ expressions went from smiles to frowns, and I began to hear unhappy complaints. “Mine is ugly,” said one little girl.
“This is stupid,” said another, ripping a hole in his paper with his eraser.
“I can’t do this,” said a third.
“Whoa, time out,” I said. “What’s going on? Why don’t you like your drawings?”
“Mine’s not perfect like yours,” lisped the little boy directly in front of me.
That’s when I asked the million dollar question that would change my life and theirs. “What do you think not perfect means?”
“Stupid, ugly, messed up, dirty, bad!” The words poured from their lips like a dam that had burst, filling the air with frustration, anger and self-blame. “Weird, insane, gross, loser, dumb, broken, unhappy, different, rubbish, stinky, disgusting.”
I didn’t try to stop them. In fact, I encouraged them to keep going, to get it all out while I scribbled the words down in my notebook. “All done?” I asked as silence fell. Silently the kids nodded. I glanced up at their teachers in the back of the room. Their faces were flushed and there were tears in their eyes.
“Okay, good job,” I said to the kids. “I’m really glad you told me how you feel. Let’s talk about being perfect, okay?”
Since that eye-opening day, I have seen the same scenario repeated in hundreds of classrooms around the world. While no longer surprised, I continue to be deeply disturbed and saddened, both for our children and for adults laboring under the illusion that they are flawed, broken or somehow undeserving because they are not perfect. What was needed, I decided, were ways to combat the myth and give students and their teachers firsthand experience making and learning from mistakes. The result was my book and related programs known as, “The Not Perfect Hat Club” (NPHC).
NPHC uses multimedia, story-driven projects to give students the chance to experience, discuss and express their feelings about perfection. Creative expression is a vital piece of the process, because it allows each child to discover, develop and share what makes him or her unique. In addition, NPHC creative projects are collaborative, making the point that we are better together – that each person has a piece to contribute to our collective puzzle.
Creating The Not Perfect Hat Club started me on the road to recovery from perfection, but there are many other ways to combat the myth. Here are a few that educators have shared with me.
Teach Each Child as an Individual
John Hattie famously said real learning happens when, “teachers see learning through the eyes of their students, and students see themselves as their own teachers.” There is so much wisdom in this statement. We must see our students as unique individuals, each with his/her learning needs, and empower them to take an active role in deciding what and how they learn.
Teach the Whole Child – Heart, Mind and Body
Breakthroughs in neuroscience have definitively proven that heart, mind and body are irrevocably intertwined. How a child feels emotionally has a profound impact on his/her ability to learn. Children who are anxious, upset, fearful or depressed cannot learn because their bodies produce chemicals that shut down higher cognitive functions.
Refuse to Data Dump
Children are not empty hard drives waiting to be filled with facts and figures, but complex, emotional beings who are motivated by what interests and excites them. My new motto, reinforced by children themselves, is “know your kids, grow your lessons.” My job is not to impose preset lesson plans, but to get to know my students and adjust how I teach based on what gets them excited and helps then learn effectively.
Cultivate Mindfulness and Self-reflection
Real learning (meaning the integration of information and experiences), requires: quieting the mind; being fully present in the moment; acknowledging but not judging thoughts, feelings and physical sensations; time to get to know one’s heart and mind; and practice expressing thoughts and feelings.
Cultivate Empathy and Kindness Through Story
Human beings are storytellers. Stories allow us to make sense of our world, and take down the walls of prejudice, fear and judgment. Giving children the opportunity to exercise their creativity, and explore who they are through a combination of storytelling and real-world projects, will teach important literacy skills, and help them develop into caring, compassionate and collaborative adults.
Finally, help your children fall in love with the iterative process of learning; to see mistakes and errors as stepping stones to discovery. Thomas Edison, who as a child was told he was, “too stupid to learn anything,” said, “I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Make sure your students know that they are seen and encouraged to explore who they are, and that while perfection is not an option, excellence is!
Connect with Jena Ball on Twitter.
Today we welcome fifth graders at Colegio Newlands in Buenos Aires, Argentina to the Not Perfect Hat Club. Jena had a great time visiting with the students, and their teachers, Viviana Lopez and Malena Accomazzo Scotti agreed to share their blog about the day with NPHC readers. Enjoy!
NPHC: Jena & Newton’s visit
After much anticipation, we finally met Jena Ball, author of The Not Perfect Hat Club! It was a wonderful event, in which we laughed A LOT, we asked and answered questions, and we even learnt how to draw Newton!
Also, some students showed their Not Perfect Hats and explained how they represented them. Finally, everybody took the pledge and so, we became official members of the international Not Perfect Hat Club!
Special thanks to Miss Vivi, Miss Moni and Miss Flavia, who helped us prepare everything to make a successful connection! Miss Vivi and Miss Moni stayed with us in the whole event, taking photos and enjoying the special visit, too.
Want to learn more about Viviana, Malena and their fabulous students? Follow them on Twitter:
Viviana Lopez: @
Malena Accomazzo Scotti: @
You can also learn more about how the students at Colegio Newlands are learning with other students around the world by checking their Google+ community, “Bringing the World Into the Classroom.” https://plus.google.com/u/0/communities/112156213745836058444
“When you judge another, you do not define them, you define yourself.” — W. Dyer
This quote by Wayne Dyer haunts me. It first appeared in my social media feed several years ago after a friend became homeless. Rather than search frantically for another minimum wage job, she chose to move into and start selling jewelry from her van. I was horrified. She, on the other hand, was strangely content. Rather than bemoan her situation, she kept her focus on three goals: make and sell jewelry, meet and help good people, and find ways to overcome her health challenges.
Over the years, my friend’s adventures have taught me many things. I learned to look past outer appearances; to see homelessness as a symptom of how we are failing one another rather than an indication of how an individual has failed at life. I discovered that often it is those with the least who give the most — who refuse to look away, who show up and share their last cup of rice, who move heaven and earth to find a temporary home for a dog while his person is in the hospital…the list goes on and on.
Then eight months ago, the mirror of judgment turned on me. Suddenly I was the one without a penny to my name; the one who couldn’t find a job; the one who was eating nothing but oatmeal and facing eviction from my home. Everywhere I turned, people I thought were friends judged me harshly. They were annoyed that I wanted to talk about my predicament, and either offered unhelpful advice or disappeared all together.
At first, I was indignant and hurt. I was the same person I’d always been — the one working 50 or 60 hours a week to keep my business afloat — the one who was now devoting every waking moment to finding a job. But that didn’t seem to matter. It was as if I had become a pariah, a symbol of something they found pitiable or distasteful. Then it hit me. They were afraid. I was living their own worst nightmare and they couldn’t get away from me fast enough.
As a recovering perfectionist, I was intimately acquainted with this mindset. I grew up judging myself and others by how I looked, how fast I swam and how I performed on tests. I learned that I was in competition with others for love, grades and jobs. My survival depended less on who I was than on how well I was able to please others. It took me many years, and lots of help, to get past this way of seeing and being in the world. Now, thanks to a simple twist of fate (and we all have them), it was my turn to love and validate myself — to ask for help and accept it knowing I was not only worth it, but would be able to pay it forward one day.
Today, Wayne Dyer’s quote appeared again and I have the chance to make that payment. I have been asked to help a friend of a friend named Lisa; someone whose story is long and complex. All you really need to know is that she is a good, kind, hardworking soul who has been diagnosed with NINDS Nuromyelitis Optica (NMO). NMO is an autoimmune disease of the central nervous system in which the body mistakenly attacks healthy cells and proteins in the body. It is both excruciatingly painful and incurable. As a result of her condition, and her attempts to find medical care, Lisa is homeless and living in her truck with her best canine buddy Bella-Boo. The good news is that Lisa has both a job and a place to live lined up if she can get the money needed to repair her truck and pay the deposit for her apartment. The even better news is that we have the chance to make this happen together. It doesn’t have to be a lot. It doesn’t even have to be money. It can be as simple as forwarding this post to someone with a note saying, “thought you might be able to help.”
Let’s be there for Lisa and for ourselves. Let’s see past the labels and remind one another that we are better together, and that what helps one helps us all.
– Jena Ball
To read Lisa’s story and donate, go here:https://www.gofundme.com/2gs2aknt
To learn more about her condition, go here:http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/neuromyelitis_optica/neuromyelitis_optica.htm
We all know that books and reading are vital to a child’s intellectual and emotional development. And by books, I mean any form that stories take, any way that we can immerse ourselves in the lives of others, learn empathy and compassion and ignite the power of the imagination. This is how human beings learn best – how we make sense of our worlds and take down the walls of fear and prejudice to discover we’re better together.
That said, there is something to be said for a compelling photo that reaches out and grabs your heart. In this case it was a photo sent by the grandmother of a second grader whose class I’d spent time with. The little boy’s name is Mason, and he was one of 600 students in first through fifth grades that I talked to that day. I remember him because he came up while I was talking to his teacher, quietly took my hand and squeezed. No words, just the gentle touch that let me know he was there. When I looked down and said hi, he asked, “Can you sign my book?”
So when the photo arrived later that night I remembered Mason, but was unprepared for how it touched me. The sight of him fast asleep with The Not Perfect Hat Club tucked in the crook of his arm brought tears to my eyes. His grandmother’s email read, “Thought you might like to know Mason fell asleep with his beloved book in his arms. Thank you for making his day.”
I guess I don’t have to tell you he made my day as well. For me, there is nothing better than the love of a child. It’s why I do what I do; why I am so determined to give them the chance to find and celebrate what makes them each perfectly not perfect. I hope you will grab a copy of The Not Perfect Hat Club and let it speak to you as well. Step into my world and take down the walls between us. – Jena Ball
Copyright 2016 by Jena Ball. All Rights Reserved.
Oscar’s Whisker Wisdom for Wednesday, August 31, 2016
Bathe daily to keep your body, heart and mind clean and clear.
Work and play hard, but give your heart and mind time to rest!
You may also want to subscribe to The Not Perfect Hat Club mailing list, so that we may stay in touch (no spam, we promise)
Copyright 2016 by Jena Ball. All Rights Reserved.
Hello. My name is Oscar, and I am a very special cat. My job it to educate my person, which can a BIG challenge!
My mother was a large, sleek orange tabby cat. We lived in a barn with horses and cows, who would let us sleep on their backs at night to keep warm. My mother was an excellent mouser, and taught me everything I needed to know about people and the art of time shifting.
When the farm was sold, the new owners tore down the barn and put me in an animal shelter. The people at the shelter were kind and fed me fine food. They also introduced me to my person, Ms. Jenaia. My one complaint was having to share a smelly room with some cats who didn’t understand how to use a litterbox. But never mind. All of that is behind me now.
My person and I are currently writing my life story. If you have questions of suggestions, we would love to hear from you. Please Tweet to me at:
You can also talk to my person by sending an email or Tweet, or posting to Facebook or Instagram:
You may also subscribe to The Not Perfect Hat Club mailing list, so that we may stay in touch (no spam, we promise)
Maslow in the 21st Century Classroom
Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist who is probably best known for his hierarchy of needs. The hierarchy is based on his theory that children’s psychological health (and ability to succeed as adults) depends on having innate human needs met. Maslow divided these needs into six categories based on priority, starting with basic physiological needs and culminating in self-actualization (see image above).
Although many of these needs seem self-evident, many education systems today tend to place less importance on categories such as “love and belonging,” and esteem,” labelling them as “soft skills.” Ongoing research being done by psychologists and neuroscientists such as Dr. Dan Siegel and Dr. Richard Davidson are providing hard evidence that a child’s emotional well-being is as if not more important than traditional academics. In fact, children who do not feel safe, supported and empowered have a difficult time learning.
In our chat on June 19th. we propose to probe a little deeper into Maslow’s hierarchy and discuss practical ways we as educators can address the needs of the “Whole Child.” Come prepared to think outside the box and to share your favorite Maslow quote. Some of our favorites are listed below. See you Sunday!
– Jena and Brett
“All of life is education and everybody is a teacher and everybody is forever a pupil.”
“One can choose to go back toward safety or forward toward growth. Growth must be chosen again and again; fear must be overcome again and again.”
“The ability to be in the present moment is a major component of mental wellness.”
“What is necessary to change a person is to change his awareness of himself.”
“The self-actualized person must find in his life those qualities that make his living rich and rewarding.”
“If you plan on being anything less than you are capable of being, you will probably be unhappy all the days of your life.”
“The only happy people I know are the ones who are working well at something they consider important.”
“If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.”
“You will either step forward into growth or you will step back into safety.”
Contact Jena Ball: JenaBall@CritterKin
Copyright 2016 by Jena Ball. All Rights Reserved.
I must have listened to twelve-year-old Beau Dermott sing, “I’m through with playing by the rules of someone else’s game,” a dozen times now, and each time the power of her words and voice take my breath away. In them I hear not only echoes of my own attempts to defy gravity, but a reminder of what is at stake if we continue to accept the rules and limitations of an education system that is focused on corporate profits rather than what is best for our kids.
Each day I log onto Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn and see brilliant posts by educators who clearly understand the importance of teaching the whole child, taking down the walls of our classrooms, incorporating PBL into our curriculums and making social-emotional learning a priority. But intellectual understanding is not enough. We must find ways to implement change; to challenge what we know doesn’t work and begin experimenting with techniques, programs and approaches that we believe will work. As the song says, we must be “through accepting limits because someone says they’re so.”
So where do we begin? We begin by asking – by making our beliefs, concerns and values as trained professionals known to those who hold the purse strings. We enlist the aid of our students, who after all should have a say in what and how they learn, and need opportunities to create presentations, write persuasive letters, and practice the research and math skills needed to hire and pay for programs. We create and sign petitions, write to our government officials, speak to our PTAs, parents, boards of education and community organizations. We join and take an active role in Edcamps, conferences and organizations that are committed to effective change. We rock the boat and make waves.
Finally, we keep challenging, questioning and supporting one another. We refuse to see others’ abilities as threats to our own. We share what we learn and celebrate what our colleagues accomplish because we realize one person’s success benefits us all – that we each have something unique and valuable to bring to the table and are indeed better together.
Make no mistake, the revolution that’s needed cannot be accomplished by a few souls working in isolation. The kind of change we’re talking about will require an army of committed, caring educators who believe that our future depends on giving all children the gravity defying tools they need to fly.
Copyright 2016 by Jena Ball. All Rights Reserved.