Archive | August, 2014

Taking off Our Superhero Capes

29 Aug

superman_capeWhen I was 10, my mom used to pack me a lunch that had a little tuna-sandwich making kit in it.  A little sleeve of crackers, plus a mini-tin of tuna and a packet of mayonnaise you mixed in.  I barely liked anything my mom packed for lunch, but I liked that.  The problem was, the tuna was a bit fragrant.  As the smell wafted over the lunch tables, someone would inevitably say, “ewww…does someone have tuna?  I hate tuna.”  As my cheeks reddened, I tried to covertly hide the fact that I was the tuna-eater.  It was embarrassing to be eating something that others found distasteful.

I spent a lot of time thinking about that tuna, and I eventually came to the conclusion that while it was acceptable to dislike something that others liked–to be the person saying, “gross, I won’t eat that”–it was not acceptable to like what others disliked.  Far safer to automatically reject something that might not be accepted, than to embrace something that others would find objectionable.

Glennan Doyle Melton, a mommy blogger and best-selling writer, named this phenomenon “superhero capes”–people’s tendency to wrap themselves in a cape of sarcasm, or perfectionism, or positivity–to protect themselves against painful personal exposure.  For me, negativity was a good cape.  Saying I didn’t like something was easier than saying I did.  If you reject something before it rejects you, you’re all good, right?

Fast-forward to adult-me, and now I see this particular cape a lot in schools.  It becomes stronger and thicker as children grow older.  It’s particularly thick in middle school, where making fun of something or someone before they can make fun of you is a classic peer-control strategy.  But it shows up in the workplace too, and personal lives, and it creeps into each interaction we have with others.

The need for superhero capes is, I think, deep down about the need for connection.  It’s about being afraid you’ll be rejected from a group, and pre-emptively removing yourself so you don’t have the pain of being cast out by others.  It’s similar to the strategy of self-handicapping in learning, where you don’t put in effort from the beginning, so that when you fail you can protect yourself from the disappointment by saying, “that failure doesn’t really say anything about me…I didn’t even try.”  If you reject an activity, or idea, or person first, you protect yourself from knowing if they would have rejected you.

A sense of belonging lessens the need for superhero capes.  It’s why community building is so important for classes, and staffs, and why we start with icebreakers and connectors in most meetings.  A warm, welcoming environment allows us to try new things and open ourselves up for failure.

community_circle_displayI’m getting ready to start a new year of teaching as a reading specialist, and I’m about to have 5 new mini-communities in my daily reading groups.  The kids already know each other from class, but we’ll start with some warm-fuzzies anyway so that they know they’re welcome and they can open themselves up to try new things without a fear of rejection.   We’ll make a group picture book, and write about our families, and read stories together.  Maybe we’ll have some special lunches once a month, so that we can bond over non-academic fun too.

And if they bring tuna fish, I’ll be sure to say, loud and clear, “Did someone bring tuna fish?  Awesome, I love tuna fish too!”

What’s in a Stat? Using Data to Impact Small Choices

1 Aug
salutations-chart, from

salutations-chart, from

In a blog post titled, ‘We Experiment on Human Beings,” OKCupid founder Christian Rudder shares how the site manipulated user profiles to gain data on what led to interactions and meaningful conversations on the site.

His post is in reaction to the ruckus over the Facebook emotional contagion study, but I thought it was much more interesting how OKCupid uses it’s data.  Yes, they mine their data for information that will help them make the site more successful (and by extension, profitable) but they also share their information on their blog.  Oktrends is a veritable gold mine of information about our habits, preferences, and our often misguided assumption about what will appeal to a potential mate (or ourselves.)

What’s awesome about their data is that they interpret it for us–so when they share their thousands of data points about what first messages gained the most traction in their post, Exactly What to Say in a First Messagethey get very specific with advice–open with “how’s it goin” or “What’s up,” but not the more formal “Hi” or “Hello.”  Express interest by using the phrases, “I was curious,” or “You mentioned…”  Contrast that with the general advice we often get, like “be casual,” or “show specific interest in the other person.”

Imagine this transferred to other fields.  Let’s take the classroom.  We give feedback to students, but it’s often a general, not-easily-applied kind of message.  For example, “Johnny is not very engaged in his reading.  He needs to focus on his books for longer.”  We have a very general piece of data here–not engaged in reading–that’s sort of equivalent to OKCupid telling users, “you’re not successful at getting dates.”  It’s accurate, but it’s describing a problem, rather than being helpful.  In fact, it’s pretty discouraging to hear.

We could get more specific with our data.  “Johnny reads for an average of 5 minutes before he finds an alternate activity, like going to the drinking fountain or sharpening a pencil.”  But we’ve really just described the problem in more detail, like saying, “people look at your profile on OKCupid an average of 8 seconds before they click away.”

We need some data for when Johnny is successful at engaging in reading to see the difference–or barring that, some data about when other students similar to Johnny are successful.  “Johnny reads for an average of 15 minutes when his book is a series with characters he knows well,” or “Johnny focuses for more than ten minutes at a time when he’s sitting in a favorite spot, facing away from other students so he’s not distracted.”  Suddenly we have some strategies for how to help Johnny, like OKCupid telling us that pictures that show activities spark more meaningful conversations on average than selfies that just focus on a smiling face.

Now imagine we give this information to Johnny, instead of just sharing with parents at conferences or keeping the knowledge tucked in our head.

Johnny, I’ve been marking when you’re reading and when you’re doing a different activity, and I noticed something interesting.  Usually when you’re reading, you read for about 5 minutes before you get distracted.  But sometimes when you read, you can focus for ten or fifteen minutes at a time!  Usually that’s when you’re reading your series books, like Animorphs or The Lightening Thief.  What do you think of that?”

Johnny can make the cognitive leap.  And now he can devise some plans for how to stay engaged more in reading.

Data is a powerful tool for noticing trends, and what works and what doesn’t, but it’s often held by a those in charge.  OKCupid has opened up some of their data to benefit their subscribers, and they’ve made that data specific, comprehensible, and useful.  Too often in education the data is vague (such as “below standard in math” or “5 on the API”) or not shared with the ultimate actors–the students.  If we are really specific about the issue (struggles in reading because doesn’t notice when a vocabulary word is unknown) then we can be very specific about solutions (repeated lessons with short texts working on identifying and attacking unknown words.)

Data can help us to identify problems, but it can also help us to identify solutions.  We can share data with our students, in the form of grades, percentages, or smiley-faces, but the more specific we are with our observations, the more our students can respond with a positive solution to the problem.



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