Sunday, May 8, 2016

Red Car Moments

This time of year, I find myself focusing on what it is that makes great teachers, great. Everyone's experienced, at one time or another, what makes for a bad experience with a teacher and we've felt it's impact, either first-hand or second-hand. Whether we encountered this experience as a student, with a colleague, or as the parent of a school-age child, we clearly remember the feeling associated with a "bad teacher" or a "bad school year". We remember the impact it left on us, on our experience as students, and in some cases, on our feelings towards school, as adults.  

But do we spend enough time focusing on what great teachers do?

Red Cars

Several years ago, I read a book called, Seeing Red Cars: Driving Yourself, Your Team, and Your Organization to a Positive Future. In the book, the author asserts this idea that you buy a red car, and in turn tend to see an increase in the number of red cars you see, wherever you go.

Why does this happen?

Well, according to the author, you see more red cars because you're focused on them. And, either intentionally or not, when we fixate on what we want, we get what we want as the outcome. By the same token, when we focus on what we don't want, that result is exactly what we get.

So I've been thinking about this concept in this last month or so, and how it applies to educators. And the truth is, I've been fortunate to encounter more "red car moments" than I can count, both personally and professionally. Some have been incidentally, doing routine walk-through observations or classroom visits. And others have come as the result of invitations to see how a teacher has taken a risk that will likely yield growth, reflection, and student success. I'm grateful for having an ability to see more red cars these days, thanks to teachers who I work with and our students learn from each day.

Dogs and Blogs

I know a passionate 11 year old. He's a talented musician. He's a creative problem-solver who enjoys a complex challenge. He's agile, dexterous, and athletic. He's got a mind like a steel trap. He's an avid kid chef, who understands how to prepare for and follow a recipe, that results in a good meal. He's skilled at building and assembling projects.  

He's also a "rule follower". He's helpful and compassionate. He's got his convictions on any topic presented. He's "good at" school, in it's most traditional form. He can be, at times stubborn and is always empathetic towards others. In short, he's a quirky, wonderful, challenging, and amazing adolescent. He's remarkable.

He's my son. 

In many ways, he is a "textbook definition" of an adolescent. And in so many more ways, he's becoming an extraordinary, fascinating person.

I used to think he was a reluctant reader and writer. But I've come to appreciate that maybe it'd be more accurate, to say he's an indifferent reader and writer. 

This is not because he's not good at it. It's because he's ambivalent about it.

In everything he does, he has to have a reason, a driving purpose. So for him, reading has never been an event, but more a means to an end. He will read manuals to fix things and to build things. He will read books because in school, you read because your teacher tells you to. He reads books because his parents bring him to the public library and they know it's important to model that for him. He will write thank you cards. He will make lists. He is able to follow several recipes simultaneously, resulting in a delicious meal. He's an independent and an autonomous learner. And he's more or less, indifferent about reading and indifferent about writing. He's yet to figure out how it fits into his overall purpose. 

Until this year.

This year, his sixth grade teacher learned of his love for dogs. And she's used it to his and to her advantage. This was the year for his "red car moment".

We don't have a dog...yet. But he wants one, and has wanted one for as long as I can remember. For as long as he's been literate, he's obsessively read about dogs. He's read books and has watched videos. He's done science projects and community service projects centering on dogs. And he's made himself known throughout the neighborhood as the local dog walker. Dogs have always been his personal passion.  

And this year, for the first time in his life, he has a teacher who has found a way to do what great teachers do. She tapped into what Dr. Ken Robinson would refer to as my son's "element". This teacher, she found a way to do what only great teachers can do: she caught lightning in a bottle. She helped him discover his purpose...for reading and for writing.

At the beginning of this school year, our typically reluctant reader/writer son came home and enthusiastically announced that, this year, he was going to be keeping a blog. And when the teacher told him he could write about whatever it was his heart desired, he knew, at that very moment, that he'd be spending the year reading and writing about his two greatest passions. 

1. Dogs
2. Convincing his parents he needs a dog.

What has developed over the course of this year?

As a writer, he has grown immensely in the following areas:

  • Development of ideas around a central theme
  • How to structure a piece so it meets the needs of readers
  • Knowing the difference the right words, tone, and structure can make
  • Using "author's voice" and having an appreciation of one's audience
  • The importance of writing with purpose
  • An appreciation for why we write
  • A willingness and interest in experimenting with words, language, and different genres
  • How to structure a piece to "hook" and interact with a reader
  • How and why good writers synthesize receptive and expressive language
  • Having a sense of confidence that has transcended the blog, the classroom, and his school experience.
Seeing this metamorphosis take place over the course of one school year has been a transformational experience. It's been a red car moment that has fortified my belief in the impact one teacher can have on one learner. It has led to other red car moments...and the pursuit of other red car moments.

So what takeaways are there for adults who work in schools?

  1. We are responsible for red car moments. Each of us. It's one of the privileges; one of the timeless gifts of being an educator.
  2. We owe it to our students to make this a value that they can see and they can feel. 
  3. We owe it to one another, that when we have a red car moment, we don't keep it to ourselves. Because red car moments beget other red car moments.
  4. We owe it to our communities to show they can expect these of us, and we we deliver them, with fidelity.
  5. We owe it to our profession to celebrate red car moments, for our students and for one another. Because as President Kennedy once wrote, "A rising tide lifts all boats."

And now, wherever I look, I can't stop seeing red cars. 

Or looking for more.


  1. Loved reading this and thinking about your son and your experience as a parent educator. When educators take the time to reach into our students hearts and minds, there is no limit to what our students can achieve. Looking forward to continuing our conversations on this and more! Thank you for being a literacy leader who sees red.

  2. Interest surveys should be one of the first things we ask our students to fill out each year. Motivation is crucial for reading and writing tasks, so why not begin at a place of YES rather than NO? Makes perfect sense! The red car analogy is cool! We tend to find what we are ooking for!

  3. Dennis, what a wonderful post! I will be looking for red car moments today!