THE BIG-BRAINED SUPERHEROES CLUB
Big-Brained Superheroes on Ice

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As much as we love hanging out at Yesler Community Center creating cool stuff, there are just too many superpower-building opportunities available out in the world for us to stay cooped up for too long. And thanks to a thoughtful holiday gift from a member of our extended Big-Brained Superhero community, we were thrilled to exercise our Sense of Adventure, Teamwork, Kindness, and other superpowers on the ice rink ​at seattlecenter this Winterfest! (We even got in some brief discussions of the principles of inertia and ice formation in the process.) At one point in the festivities, a young BBS wanted to stop and “admire the talent” of one exceptional skater: image

So, we did stop and admire her talent. And then, we stopped her to ask about her experience and how much Persistence she puts into learning the skill of ice skating. It turns out that this exceptional skater began skating relatively late in life after she immigrated to the US from Okinawa in her twenties. Since then, she’s practiced as often as five times a week, depending on her scheduling priorities. Though our interaction with her was brief, this obliging ice skater provided more real-life supporting evidence for a few of our basic BBS assumptions:

  1. "It all begins with a Sense of Adventure.” If we adhere to preconceived notions or rules for when and how we should learn new things, we are likely to fail at the goal of tapping into all of our hidden strengths.
  2. Persistence is a roller coaster.” Sometimes our Persistence is powered up, and sometimes it’s powered down. There are many potential explanations for this variability. The only constant here is the fact that we need our Persistence superpower in order to tap into all our hidden strengths.
  3. Empowerment is the one superpower that rules them all.” Tapping into your hidden strengths makes you a model—someone whose talent others will want to stop and admire. Taking the time yourself to stop and make those hidden strengths accessible to others makes you a big-brained superhero.

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Big-Brained Superheroes vs. Winning

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What you see here is the screen one of our 4th-grade Big-Brained Superheroes saw after beating DragonBox, the game we began playing during Washington State’s algebra challenge week. One of our favorite aspects of this success is how much exercise our young Big-Brained Superhero’s Persistence superpower got in the process. He faced no small number of challenges and frustrations during the game, but he just kept going. Even though the algebra challenge week had ended, he was determined to keep going until the end. And so he did.

Needless to say, we’re incredibly excited to see him so diligent in his Persistence superpower exercise. He set a goal, and he stuck to it until it was achieved. So, unalloyed success, right? Fourth-grade BBS FTW!

Well, there’s a catch. When our young hero hit the above screen and realized what “endless” meant, he wanted absolutely no part of this game anymore. He was done. Finis. No way was he going to participate in an “endless” journey. No goal—no game. End of story.

And this got us thinking about some of the problems associated with focusing so directly on outcomes. Outcomes are, by nature, limited. And once you reach them, why keep striving? Of what value is process? And can all successes be planned and measured? Not to mention…Sense of Adventure, anyone?

It goes without saying that Persistence is good. Winning is good. Mastering algebra is good. But, as every good superhero adventure series teaches us, the challenges most worthy of our superpowers are those that aren’t, by nature, limited. And those in which our mastery is endlessly questioned.

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Big-Brained Superheroes vs. Structure

imageWe Big-Brained Superheroes are always up for a challenge. And sometimes our challenges aren’t nearly as challenging as we expect them to be. For instance, yesterday, Peter Gruenbaum of SDKBridge came by to teach us how to develop a maze game in Scratch. This impending event made a few of us Big-Brained Superhero volunteers a bit nervous for the following reasons:

  1. Peter is fantastically generous with his time, and we were anxious for him to feel that hanging out with us was time well-spent;
  2. Our young Big-Brained Superheroes had just spent all day in school, and we knew that a more formally structured lesson would seriously test our Persistence and Willpower superpowers;
  3. We still hadn’t settled ourselves on how well a more formally structured lesson would fit into our less formally structured club, with our young Big-Brained Superheroes coming in and out as their schedules and needs demand.

In other words, this challenge presented a genuine test for our Sense of Adventure superpower. And yet…it went great! On the whole, our young big-brained superheroes worked assiduously to the end. Huzzah! There. Now that the celebrations are over, we have to ask ourselves: Why did this exercise work so well? Here are some of—what we consider to be—the contributing factors:

  1. Peter is a genuine big-brained superhero. He exercised all of his superpowers in this endeavor, most especially Adaptability. He constrained and simplified his lesson. Rather than spending all of his time at the front of the room lecturing, he broke up his instructions into very discrete chunks and then went around the room helping. When our young Big-Brained Superheroes went off-script, he didn’t even flinch and just rolled with it.
  2. Peter also helped create an environment conducive to concentration. He brought with him a projector and laptop with which he projected his Scratch code onto the big screen. Beyond being a helpful reference tool, the projection served as a useful focal point to which our young Big-Brained Superheroes could turn their attention when they began to get restless. The dim ambient lighting accompanying the projection also seemed to help relax us.
  3. We pulled out all the motivational tools in our arsenal for this event. Successfully completing a Scratch maze became a prerequisite for attending our upcoming roboticized club field trip (details forthcoming). Big-Brained Superhero volunteers were especially generous with the big-brain bucks during this event. And at the end, our young Big-Brained Superheroes were rewarded with flash drives provided by the City of Seattle. (Whether or not we actually needed all these supporting materials for this event is open for debate, but having them at our disposal at least made us Big-Brained Superhero volunteers feel better.)
  4. Finally, it appears that our young Big-Brained Superheroes self-selected into this event, so the preponderance of the energy in the room belonged to the Scratch-curious (or at least to those who didn’t feel absolutely compelled to be running around outside on a beautiful afternoon).

All in all, this event was a hugely empowering experience for us. We all learned something useful and demonstrated that we can manage more structure when called upon to do so. How far we will take this awareness is yet to be determined. We’re still holding out hope that our young Big-Brained Superheroes will eventually perform a coup and take this club for their very own. In the meantime, however, periodically interrupting our normally scheduled pandemonium with a little bit of structure is a good thing. At the very least, it proves we can meet a serious challenge. With quite a bit of help from our big-brained superhero friends, that is.

Many thanks to Peter at SDKBridge for the help!

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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!

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!

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What the “A”?: Why We See “STEM” as a Path to Failure

Field Trip Failure

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 Unkempt"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.

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The Kids in the Hall Do Math

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"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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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). 
  3. 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.

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Failure and Success in Addressing Opportunity Gaps

But there's nothing to dooooooo!

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. We have a handbook. And handbooks are for heroes.
  6. 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:

Utterly. Shameless.

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The Big-Brained Superhackers Club inaugural meeting may have gotten a late start last night, but that didn’t deter a few Big-Brained Superheroes from sticking around an extra two hours to see the inside of a computer tower for the first time ever. Our Sense of Adventure was all systems go!

The Big-Brained Superhackers Club inaugural meeting may have gotten a late start last night, but that didn’t deter a few Big-Brained Superheroes from sticking around an extra two hours to see the inside of a computer tower for the first time ever. Our Sense of Adventure was all systems go!

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It All Begins with a Sense of Adventure…

A BBS Precipitates

So, in early October—in spite of extreme busyness—a couple of us exercised our Sense of Adventure and attended a talk by math wizard Steven Strogatz at Seattle’s Town Hall. Toward the end of the talk, our Empowerment superpower was revved up enough for us to be the first at the microphone to ask Mr. Strogatz for his opinion on the state of math education in the US today and whether he had any good resource suggestions for our young Big-Brained Superheroes. After a lengthy, vigorous, and thorough condemnation of current common practices, he mentioned that, sadly, he did not have any alternative resource suggestions. However, at the conclusion of the scheduled event, an attendee seated in front of us turned around and gave a lengthy, vigorous, and thorough commendation of a program we had never before heard of: JUMP Math.

At this point, contacting the folks at JUMP Math was a no-brainer. Our Sense of Adventure and Empowerment superpowers had already been developed enough to enable us to put finger to keyboard and shoot off a simple email: Can you help us?*. Apparently, yes, yes they could. The JUMP Math staff connected us with a Seattle-based donor who would generously fund JUMP Math’s introduction into The Big-Brained Superheroes Club. Because math is a core subject for us and one with which many of our BBSes seem to struggle, this development is indescribably momentous. In short, we’re so excited that we’re feeling punny enough to JUMP for joy!  Thank you, Steven Strogatz, Lara who sat in front of us, folks at JUMP Math, Seattle-based donor, and of course, Sense of Adventure, Empowerment, and as always, Kindness!

Obviously, our next challenge is determining which Pointer Sisters song is more appropriate for this occasion: I’m So Excited or JUMP for My Love?…decisions decisions…

OK, puns over. Here’s an excellent JUMP Math video as some small recompense:

* For some of us big-brained superheroes—big and small—asking for help is one of the more daunting challenges in life. We see this every day in our young BBSes, and we see it in ourselves. So, be prepared for it to become a bit of a recurring theme around these parts.

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Our Shared Superpowers

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/thinking what someone else is feeling/thinking
  • 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

UPDATE: Curious about where our particular concept of superpowers came from? Check out our Origins Story Part 1 of X.

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