New School Chronicles: Capacity

John Updike wrote a poem called “Capacity,” a fantastic summary of 26 passengers on a bus. Among the descriptions include affable, bibulous, corpulent, garrulous, jejune, knockabout, querulous, rakish, xanthic, zebuesque. How incredible are those words? How much fun would it be to use those words to teach vocabulary and to have students come up with their own (positive) descriptions for the people on our own (classroom) bus? Aren’t we all passengers?

I got that idea about teaching that poem from a former colleague. I have been turning it around in my head how I might use it. I want to do a more intentional vocabulary study. I think we could take ownership of those words, study synonyms, modern usage, do some composing.

This poem also makes me think of who these passengers are on this bus that I attempt to steer this semester. I have adolescent and adult learners and on the very best days, I put the two in conversation with each other, as what is going on in my high school classroom directly informs what I do later that day by working with preservice teachers.

Of late, I’ve been trying to help the adolescents think of their capacity to learn, particularly as related to effective effort and grit. Essentially, smart is what you get by using specific strategies to improve. Intelligence is not fixed. The bell curve is wrong.

That’s a hard pill to swallow for some honors kids. And incredibly freeing for others. Seriously. As we were discussing growth vs. fixed mindsets, more kids would speak up, confirming being called smart by well-meaning adults and peers, feeling pressure to live up to their siblings’ accomplishments, thinking that one is “just born smart” and that it’s an indicator of unsmartness (my word) if you have to work hard. I can see how learning how to foster a growth mindset can mess kids up if they’ve always been told they were exceptional, that this rarefied air is reserved for only a few–what, the keys to the kingdom are that accesible?!

By the time I rolled around to the third period of teaching that lesson again, I was well prepared for their resistance, astonishment and some simmering anger. And then, they began to ask the questions that leads me to believe that these just might be the change-agents in this world we need them to be.

One student asked a question about IQ, which led to some uncertainty about even knowing what the test measured (it was originally used to identify people thought to be the best military leaders), that a few had taken it, that it asked “random facts.” Then, we somehow got onto talking about standardized tests, and another chimed in that the correlation between how well you di on the SAT was really about how much money you had. That response caused another to ask about the relationship between race, class and SAT scores (I couldn’t have made this up if I tried), which was answered by a student who had done that very research over the summer. That led us back around to an entirely innocent question posed by another student, about why we needed these tests in the first place?


Whoa. I was happy to have that moment to pause, wrap it up, tell them we’d continue the next day in the context of reading Carol Dweck’s Mindset and the article about grit by Jonah Lehrer, finishing with effective effort narratives. I want them to have some tangible reminder of times when working hard and working smart helped them achieve success. Well, that’s in my head about where I want to go. Wanting and doing are two very different things, but I think it’s an important use of our class time, these few days we’re spending on fostering a growth mindset. It sets the stage for the on-going conversations we’ll have about their growth over the term. When they can chart the point from where they started and the tangible growth (through a variety of measures, only one of which includes a grade, which I know is important, but I also stress that the grade is merely an indicator of where they are at that moment in time and, again, with effective effort, if they want to change that grade, we can work together to do just that), that means something.

That develops their capacity to be better students, and also develops my capacity to be a better teacher.

1 Comment

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One response to “New School Chronicles: Capacity

  1. D-shizzle

    Examine the following quote from rhetorician and philosopher Kenneth Burke:
    Imagine that you enter a parlor (say, “house party”). You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to trace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late; you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in process.—Kenneth Burke

    To your point above, nobody has the “right” answer or explanation. We all need to “put our oar in” and work through the ideas and discover the t-ruth (lower-case t is intentional). I tell my students that any interpretation of a work of literature (or anything) is a house of cards. The introduction of some new viewpoint or piece of evidence can bring it all tumbling to the ground at which point we must begin anew at creating our “right” answer.

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