Tapping into the hidden strengths…This amazing work of Art and Math was completely driven by one of our young big-brained superheroes. From inspiration to execution, it was all him. And he did it just because he wanted to. We like this!
On a very rainy day last spring, a few kids from Yesler Community Center boisterously piled into a Honda Civic on their way to see a little movie that had just come out, which you may have heard of, called The Avengers. This was our first ever field trip reward for our after school homework help program, and in pretty much every measurable way, it was a failure. Kid there without permission slip; permission slip there without kid; no kid, no permission slip; you name it. As a result, we ended up with about half of our projected attendance. Keyword here: (F)ailure.
Now, if you’ve read The Big-Brained Superheroes Club Origins: Part 1 of X, you may have a sense of where this whole thing is going. This post is essentially a prequel to that one (We’ll leave it up to you to decide whether this prequel is more Christopher Nolan or George Lucas). In short, if we were purely STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) and data-driven decision-making were our only guiding star, The Big-Brained Superheroes Club would likely not exist today.
Upon return from the failed field trip, the attendees were all quiet…for a change. One of our 11 year-old boys didn’t have time to discuss it because he simply had to “go write a poem”. And when we asked a round-faced, supremely stoic young girl covered in Hijab who was her favorite Avenger, she smiled broadly with her eyes: “Captain America”. “Captain America?” Really? Not Black Widow who had the brass to say, “Maybe it’s not about guns,” in a superhero movie!? Not the scintillating scene-stealer Iron Man? But, rather, the conventionally wooden throwback to the 40s whose most exotic feature was his spangly outfit? That guy? We had to get to the bottom of this. And get to the bottom of it we did when we embarked on our mission to determine what made Captain America cool. It was from that mission that the basis of The Big-Brained Superheroes Club was formed.
We can argue all day about what constitutes scientific vs. artistic thinking. In truth, we see a lot of overlap ourselves. But words require meaning, and in the language of superpowers, we rely pretty heavily on Critical Thinking to be our pathway into scientific thinking. Data, math, logic…all of these tools are absolutely necessary for us to analyze, to communicate, to determine. However, for us, these tools are by no means sufficient. Without our pathways into what we currently consider artistic thinking—our Creativity and Sense of Adventure superpowers—we come up short. All of our carefully discerned patterns would never develop into themes. So, just like Albert Einstein, we big-brained superheroes need our (A)rt. STEAM is the word.
Even before our Monday meeting commenced, our big-brained superheroes were building amazing structures out of the materials we had brought. And within the first ten minutes, this same series of tubes had been turned into a pair of binoculars/spyglasses (complete with a few battery-powered LEDs), a samurai sword, and two different types of guns. And immediately after that, we were fielding complaints that we couldn’t supply enough materials to meet demand. All of which begs the question: Is the tubularity upon us?
Seriously, though, care to donate your discarded cardboard tubes for re-creational purposes?
“Can I have a math problem?” is, as we mentioned on Twitter recently, probably our favorite big-brained superhero FAQ. How this tradition got started we don’t recall, but we’ve pretty much given up on making it through the halls of Yesler Community Center without being stopped by this question at least once (mostly at least thrice). And having zero interest in looking a gift horse in the math, roll with it we do. Even if it means scheduling an extra 20 minutes for a trip to the bathroom.
Why do we love this question so much? Well, we know that number talk is important in our early years, and apparently, ready access to basic math knowledge correlates with success on the PSAT. But our love of this question goes much deeper than that. This question, for us, is all about our superpowers:
- Sense of Adventure: Anytime big-brained superheroes are eager to solve a problem, they’re exercising their Sense of Adventure. And it all begins with a Sense of Adventure.
- Kindness, Empathy, Teamwork: Somehow some way we’ve learned to use math as a means of communication. A point of connection. Contra approaches like this one, our hallway math is a group effort. We suspect this cooperative approach may be good for all our big-brained superheroes but most especially for our girls (who, BTW, are our most frequent inquisitors by far).
- Critical Thinking, Creativity, Adaptability, and Persistence: Hallway math, sans pencil or paper, creates an interesting challenge for us. How difficult can we make it for our big brains and still keep it achievable? How far can we test their boundaries and even their sense of themselves? How can we, ever so briefly and subtly, blow their minds? While it may sound ridiculous, these really are the questions we ask ourselves. All in this quintessentially transitory space.
We love these indisputable reminders that thinking, learning, and connecting can and should be happening everywhere, maybe even especially on the way to the bathroom.
This drawing of a “holographic chat watch” was created by one of our big-brained superheroes after a meeting in which we focused specifically on exercising our Creativity superpower. Although that meeting was at least a couple of months ago, we hadn’t seen this drawing until last week. That’s because the big-brained superhero to which this homework had been assigned had gone missing from club meetings throughout all that time. Nonetheless, he carried this drawing around in his notebook until he was able to return. We’re hoping this means he’s serious.
Part of our mission to “tap into the hidden strengths that all young people have” involves helping our big-brained superheroes turn their big ideas into reality. The above drawing represents one big-brained superhero’s idea. That’s a huge first step! And if he’s serious about his idea, our goal is to help him draw up design and requirements documents for a prototype that gets him as close to his design as he can get. From there, we plan to help him find the resources to create his prototype. And finally, we hope to help him build and test it.
Obviously, this project presents a huge test for all of our superpowers—Persistence and Adaptability, in particular. One big challenge will be getting us through the “boring” parts. To that end, we’ll be deploying all of our Leadership and Teamwork superpowers for keeping everyone maximally motivated. Another exciting question we’ll be exploring is how well we are able to adapt our design to fit within price, materials, and engineering constraints. We have no idea whether or not we’ll be successful in this endeavor. But luckily, we have our Sense of Adventure. And that’s a start.
The Creativity superpower: Connecting things in new ways.
Little Rascals aficionados may have noticed a vaguely familiar cadence in The Big-Brained Superheroes Club nomenclature. Some may consider our name silly. We, however, take it quite seriously.
One of the raisons d’etre of The Big-Brained Superheroes Club is to provide a place for those of us who don’t necessarily have a place. We sometimes affectionately think of ourselves as “the riffraff”. Consequently, there are no major signup requirements—no parental signatures needed—for admission to the club. The only real requirement is that we adhere to The Big-Brained Superheroes Club Oath at all times. And if any of us fails to adhere to the oath, we get expelled from that evening’s meeting. Expulsion can be a harsh sentence, as one of our young big-brained superheroes discovered recently (see the above artist’s rendering of real-life events). So, we try to avoid it at all costs.
Why we’ve devoted ourselves to this particular model has to do with the opportunity gap that others have studied (and that we, ourselves, have observed):
Wealthy families can and do spend more money on music and art lessons, tutors, and summer camp for their children that help them get ahead, while low-income kids often go home after school to unsafe neighborhoods, with little supervision and fewer positive outlets for their time and energy. The extended time movement is meant to correct those inequalities by offering the same diverse array of activities and adult mentors to disadvantaged children.
And while Yesler Community Center houses fabulous art activities for kids who wish to drop in (courtesy of The Nature Consortium), we see value and interest in throwing some science and superpowers into the mix. The challenges inherent in such an endeavor are vast and varied, but one of the benefits is that it forces us to exercise our superpowers in some fairly extreme ways. In particular, our Creativity and Sense of Adventure are constantly getting a workout while we’re searching for ways to tap into the hidden strengths that all (young) humans have.
In theory, it could work, she says, but it’s often resource intensive and takes the space and time for creative outside-the-box thinking.
Indeed. As observed in the above artist’s rendering of real-life events, we’re not always successful. However, in the rare moments we have considered ourselves successful, we’ve identified a few of our, what we in the big-brained superhero biz call, “assets”. So, in the interest of anecdotal science, here are some of the things that we think have helped us tap into some of those hidden strengths:
- We are where the young people want to be. When we were kids we probably would have rather shot our eye out than remain an extra second at school. And we consider it probable that our young big-brained superheroes feel similarly. Yesler Community Center is currently our home, and it’s a huge asset in that kids go there willingly. Because they want to.
- We are always trying to maximize opportunities. Recently, Yesler CC provided accommodations for a holiday party where hundreds of kids lined up in the hopes of procuring some loot from a jolly old fat man in a red suit. Lined up kids (and parents) = opportunities. So, while other (real) volunteers were handing out stickers and posing in Disney costumes, we riffraff were working the insanely long line administering “The Big-Brained Superhero Test”. It’s amazing how many varieties of math problems you can do without pencil and paper: “What’s 6 x 3? What’s 6+6? What’s 12+6? What’s 18/3? What’s 1/3rd of 18? What’s 2/3rds of 18?…” It’s also amazing what kids will do voluntarily in order to avoid staring blankly around them or talking to their parents.
- We are utterly shameless in our use of almost any motivational tool. Shop smart; shop BBSmart! And though we haven’t used food as a direct motivator (and have no immediate plans to do so), we do provide snacks.
- We are profoundly enthusiastic about what we’re doing. We are big-brained superheroes, and a big-brained superhero’s credo is to Always Be Superpowering. If we’re not living it, we’re not teaching it.
- We have a handbook. And handbooks are for heroes.
- We are them; they are us. It may be obvious by now that The Big-Brained Superheroes Club truly is a group endeavor. We the experienced (aka old) big-brained superheroes are there to provide opportunity, adventure, and minimal boundaries. When young ones come to us for help, we want them to do so mostly because they value our ideas and suggestions…not necessarily because we’re authority figures. And while we do drop the hammer from time to time (have we mentioned the above artist’s rendering of real-life events?), it’s only ever in the interest of the group. Trust and goodwill are our most valuable currency—we don’t squander those on delusions of grandeur.
Now, we’re sure there’s more where these six assets came from, but those will have to come in due time. Finally, here’s your reward for making it this far:
Kirby Ferguson speaking at TED on the topic of remixing:
Our creativity comes from without, not from within. We are not self-made. We are dependent on one another, and admitting this to ourselves isn’t an embrace of mediocrity and derivativeness. It’s a…
We briefly mentioned remixing in our Adaptability v. Persistence post. One rationale for viewing Creativity as remixing that we Big-Brained Superheroes can really get behind is that remixing (copying, transforming, and combining) can exercise quite a few of our superpowers (Teamwork, Leadership, Sense of Adventure, Critical Thinking…) in one go. Which is probably why, although The Big-Brained Superheroes Club itself sometimes gets praised for originality, we do seem to take quite a lot of pride in our own fairly derivative origins.
If you’ve seen the recent Avengers movie, you have some idea of how The Big-Brained Superheroes Club got started. First, recollect just a few of the challenges that Nick Fury faced when trying to get his band of brainy heroes to trade contretemps for cooperation. Now, throw in a few unconvincing lectures by a crackly voiced, brown-haired girl about how “we’re all in this together.” Finally, add a considerable number of math worksheets, some reading exercises, and a bit of homemade play dough, and you have the essence of our weekly after school homework help sessions.
OK, maybe that’s hyperbole. But it’s an analogy based in today’s pop culture…What did you expect? A
Lord of the Flies Survivor reference? We’re better than that.
If you’re familiar with Who we are, then you know that one of the top priorities for our after school program is “fostering a collegial atmosphere,” and you know the reason we feel that’s important is that stress has been shown to inhibit learning, and there’s a lot of stress involved in interpersonal conflict, etcetera, etcetera, whatever, just re-watch The Avengers and you’ll get the idea. ”That’s great,” you say, “but what does all that have to do with superheroes? And superpowers—what’s with those?”. Well, just unclench for a second, exercise your Sense of Adventure and Persistence superpowers, and we’ll get there.
Because superheroes have superpowers.
OK, then. Why Superpowers?
Easy. Superpowers are manifestly cool.
A couple of us were sitting in the movie theater watching (SPOILER ALERT!) the recent Avengers movie wondering what made Captain America cool. Was it his spangly outfit? Was it his snazzy shield? Not really. Not to us. What made Captain America cool to us was when, at the end of the movie, he used his Leadership and Teamwork superpowers to inspire the Avengers to make optimal use of their own individual superpowers. To that end, he gave general suggestions rather than specific orders. And he modeled rather than simply dictated the behaviors that he wanted to see. That’s what made him cool. Captain America’s shield and spangly outfit were simply technologies with which he exercised his Leadership and Teamwork superpowers. Or, at least, that’s what we saw.
But beyond the coolness factor, the superpowers metaphor serves a valuable function. Like other metaphors, It helps us see the otherwise unseen. If we flip the standard comic book concept of superpowers upside down and abnormalize the “normal”, we can more easily become aware of, clearly define, and maybe eventually taxonomize the behaviors that we otherwise take for granted on a daily basis. (Shout-out to all the sci-fi nerds rolling their eyes that we’re like a textbook with arms right now…yes, we know you know this, but you’re special.) If our Leadership and Teamwork superpowers start to become as apparent to us as shields and spangly outfits, then we are more likely to pick them up and use them in our most stressful moments. And, at the end of the day, isn’t that what education is about? Giving us the power to defeat supervillains?
One of the primary missions of The Big-Brained Superheroes Club this summer is to help our Big-Brained Superheroes clearly see themselves as positive actors in the world—to help them realize and build on the best parts of themselves. Along those lines, we’re going to focus on solidifying a language for and an awareness of our superpowers, such as leadership, teamwork, and critical thinking, while we draw, write, invent, and perform.
Our Official Dictionary of Superpowers:
- Teamwork: joining together to accomplish our mission
- Leadership: inspiring, encouraging, and being an example to those around us
- Kindness: being thoughtful and considerate
- Empathy: feeling what someone else is feeling
- Sense of Adventure: desire to try new things and make mistakes
- Critical Thinking: questioning our assumptions
- Adaptability: ability to adjust to new situations
- Persistence: sticking to a goal
- Empowerment: feeling confident in ourselves
- Respect: having regard for others
- Willpower: being able to intentionally control ourselves with our brains
- Creativity: giving our brains the freedom to connect things in a new way