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CAG Blog: Powered by Optimism

"Powered by Optimism" captures my reflections of life in and around an all-girls' school and highlights the values of C.A.G.: leadership, global citizenship, wellness, and teaching and learning. Underscoring it all is a deeply ingrained sense of optimism that we are preparing a generation of boldly creative women who will help change the world. 


15 pink scarves- 2.27.12

Last week, I attended the National Conference on Girls’ Education in Washington, D.C. I am not intending to use this post to tell you all about it – though soaking up the distinctly girl-centered energy fed my it-is-the-dead-of-winter weary brain.

I did attend one session on making financial literacy real for girls. And I enjoyed it a great deal. What I took away from that presentation is the oft-researched and oft-proven belief that motivation and engagement in students are in part related to making content relevant to students’ lives and experiences 

For an educator, this is no small task. It means taking content that can appear to have little direct meaning in the lives of young people and creating that place in the learning process where the student experiences how whatever she is learning applies to her life, her feelings, her future, her past. And then, she is hooked.

On my first day back, still mulling over the many conversations I had with educators from across the nation and the globe, I was invited to observe a new fourth grade project.

This is the type of thing I love – seeing research in action, observing the miraculous work of teachers as they sculpt students’ minds and lives.

Our Lower School art teacher and science teacher devised, over a year ago and after attending a teacher workshop, the concept for a project that challenges girls to think like scientists and like artists. And because so much of real life asks us to think beyond the boundaries of a single discipline, the project mirrored the challenges real scientists and real artists face.

In essence, girls were asked to dye a scarf. Okay, you say, nothing earth-shattering there. A fun task that will result in a scarf that will in all likelihood be tucked away on the top shelf of a family member’s closet. But wait – girls were also tasked with creating the dye for the scarf itself. A more complex task of mixing chemicals and, fingers crossed, hoping for the best.

And here is where it gets really interesting. “What if,” their art teacher told them, “your scarf was so beautifully pink and all your friends and family members wanted one? How would you make sure you could come back the next day and replicate that perfect shade? What if you wanted to make 15 pink scarves?” You can just hear the sharp intake of breath as the girls pondered their quandary. It was a nice quandary to consider. Many people could be wearing this original creation, this scarf that was certain to be a masterpiece. 

The girls were hooked. Clearly, they needed to carefully consider the formula for their dye. They needed to stop thinking artistically (though I might argue that a true artist is also a good scientist) and start thinking scientifically. They needed to weigh and measure fabric, yarn, dye solution, and, like true scientists, they did this in milliliters and grams. They needed to figure out how to create a formula that would give them the perfect shade of green (and I saw Hunter, Kelly and emerald – all on proud display) or purple or orange, or any color in between. And for that, they needed to understand proportion. (Did you know that the amount of white vinegar in your dye is 16% of the weight of your fiber?) And so, math skills were necessary. These girls had not yet learned percentages in math class, but they were so motivated by the end result that learning the basics of percentages seemed like a relatively small price to pay when your goal is a beautifully hand-dyed scarf.

As I watched the display of cheerful scarves with a mixture of incredulity and awe, I was reminded of the robust body of literature on optimal engagement – the theory of Flow, as brilliantly described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. This experience is best described as “the subjective buoyancy of experience when skillful and successful action seems effortless, even when a great deal of physical or mental energy is exerted.” (Shernoff and Csikszentmihalyi, 2008)

Is it difficult to imagine that during the two-hour sessions over several weeks, girls worked steadily and quietly and there was nary an utterance of frustration? Is it hard to fathom that learning how to calculate 16% of something was a skill that they were motivated to master quickly, because the relevance to these 10-year-old lives was never greater?

In the same article referenced above, the authors conclude that:

“Almost all of the research available tends to converge on the observation that meaningful engagement is composed of two independent processes—academic intensity and a positive emotional response—and that optimal learning environments combine both in order to make learning both playful and challenging, both spontaneous and important.” (p.143)


It is easy, then, to extrapolate that these teachers got it right. For those hours, those weeks, they provided challenging, autonomous and gratifying experiences for fourth grade scientific artists, or artistic scientists. It matters not. Bet you anything, though, if you stop by our fourth grade recess in the near future, I am guessing you will find bundled up girls in brightly colored scarves swinging from the monkey bars.

Posted by on Monday February, 27, 2012

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