Saturday, February 13, 2016

Beauty, the Rip, and Expectations

Back in May of 2015, Shea Glover, a student at the Chicago High School for the Arts in Ukranian Village, created an art project for her class. The project, she said, "evidently turned into a social experiment."

The result became a viral sensation, so you may have seen this before. Even if have (and especially if you haven't), take a look at it now. Go ahead. I'll wait.

At the moment, the video is closing in on ten million views. Numerous videos inspired by this one are out there, as well as an ad campaign from Dove that lifts the idea.

It's simple and striking. Glover tells her subject that they are beautiful, and they become more beautiful. You couldn't ask for a more powerful, clear and simple demonstration of the power of positive expectations.

It stands, of course, in sharp contrast to the gut-wrenching video that surfaced yesterday showing a teacher emotionally abusing a small child at Success Academy, the roughly sixty-gazillionth piece of evidence about SA's emphasis on brow-beating students into either excellence or departure.

There are many folks who don't get it. We see it in "no excuses" and other brutally over-controlling versions of classrooms-- this idea that "high expectations" means rain down shame and an ass-kicking to students who don't meet those expectations. It's ugly and unpleasant and when we see it in its raw naked form as in the SA video, we see just how awful it is. But it's not an anomaly at Success Academies-- or if it is, it's an anomaly so common that many, many people can step forward to say they've seen it, and can, independent of each other, say that it has a name at SA-- "rip and return."

I'm not advocating for a warm, gooey classroom where every student is effusively praised just for holding a pencil and making random marks on paper. Students will make mistakes, often, and we can't pretend they don't, or shouldn't. But mistakes are an opportunity for growth, not a cause for shame. Sometimes that growth is hard, and sometimes the truths that have to be faced are hard and rough; those are the very moments when making things harder, uglier, suckier on purpose is inexcusable. When the paper is wrinkled and the answers on it are wrong, that is the very worst time to rip it and throw it back in a student's face.

It's not just that shaming and browbeating are bad and ugly and lousy ways to treat fellow travelers on the surface of our small spinning globe. The biggest problem is that it just doesn't work.

Imagine that Glover had started filming and then said, "You know, if you would just smile a little, you could be a bit more beautiful." Would those faces have blossomed forth as they do in her film? I doubt it.

When you tell people, directly or indirectly, that they are strong and competent and capable and beautiful, they act as if they are strong and competent and capable and beautiful. When you tell people that they are stupid and they suck, they act as if they are stupid and sucky.

Glover's film ends with the line "There is so much beauty in the world; if you blink, you'll miss it." That's not quite right-- Glover didn't just see the beauty, but she actually added to it. She actually made the world a little bit more beautiful. Charlotte Dial, the SA teacher, made the world a little uglier.

Do you want to make a difference? Do you want to change the world? That's how you do it. You have the power to help every person you encounter become a little more beautiful, or a little more beat down. You have that power by virtue of being alive, and if you are a teacher in a classroom, that power is magnified by virtue of the many small humans in front of you. Use your power for good.

If you are interested in seeing what Glover has been up to, the young filmmaker has her own youtube channel.


  1. A beautiful response to an ugly event. Thank you!

  2. People definitely do better in a supportive environment rather than a coercive one. But no matter how caring the teacher, students are aware that at the end of the day, no matter how fair and reasonable the grade scale, they are positioned somewhere in a relative ranking system. They have been EVALUATED. That does not happen in the video.

    We can strongly support students in many ways, but ultimately, they will evaluate themselves based on their location in a grade distribution chart. That aspect of school remains the big black cloud that looms heavily on all involved. Even the "just" evaluation systems (shall we speculate about that?) give people the awareness of having been evaluated. Grades can and do definitely motivate, but the amount of despair in the world that comes from grades is....immeasurable. And I am not talking only about despair from failing....despair from just missing an A can be devastating to one student while a C is good news to another.

    Grades are powerful things. They communicate different things to different people. I think the bumper sticker I saw the other day reveals it all: My zombie kid ate you honor student kid.

    This in a town where some teachers made (for fun??) videos of kids in class, role playing zombies.

    We all need to apply our best adult critical thinking skills to understand what is going on with grades....and why. They have become a lethal weapon in the hands of all the wrong people.

    1. Which is why we need to get rid of grades entirely. My daughters' school gives out a bumper sticker that has the name of the school and then "where all children are honored". The more we focus on how well people (including and especially children) are doing things, the more we lose track of what they're doing and why.

    2. The scary thing to me is that many of the commentaries to the SA article were things like, "So what, the kid gets yelled at. Maybe they'll do it better next time. I don't have any problem with it. Life is hard, kids need to be toughened up."

    3. Hooray for your daughter's school!

    4. I meant daughters' school.

  3. Thanks, Peter, for pointing out to all who read your work, the beauty that can be found every day in schools and for keeping us focused on that.

    Christine Langhoff

  4. Thanks so much for sharing the video. It really was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.