Debunking a Superpower Myth


When we talk about what we do in The BBSC, we sometimes hear, “That’s great that you’re teaching kids Persistence (or Willpower or [insert superpower here])”. We appreciate where this comment comes from, but for a whole variety of reasons, it’s important for us to debunk this myth. We aren’t actually teaching kids these superpowers, and this fact highlights a core precept of Big-Brained Superherodom:

All these superpowers are integral to all Big-Brained Superheroes. And Big-Brained Superheroes simply must exercise their superpowers at some point (they can’t not).

Anyone who has ever watched BBSes play an online video game, for instance, has seen that they already have Persistence (and Willpower and [insert superpower here]). And it’s at least partially their need to exercise those superpowers that compels them to play in the first place.

What we in The BBSC are trying to do is decontextualize these extremely valuable abilities so that we can help isolate them, strengthen them, and prepare our BBSes to intentionally apply them to a variety of contexts. Why is it important for us sidekicks to see superpowers and our goals for them in this way?

  1. Efficiency: We don’t have to be playing basketball to talk about Teamwork and Leadership. And we don’t have to be drawing a picture to talk about Creativity and Sense of Adventure. All of our actions are composed of superpowers, and it’s our job to see these abilities, value them, and reward (or possibly redirect) their use at every opportunity.
  2. Efficacy: When BBSes get off track, it’s important for us to be able to pinpoint the source of the problem as accurately as possible in order to help remedy the situation. Our experience has indicated that BBS challenges are almost always related to either conflicted motivations or any number of various incorrect preconceptions. Lack of ability has yet to be a significant hindrance for any BBS we’ve encountered so far, so misattributing problems to that would hinder our success as sidekicks.

In short, we sidekicks are not teachers. If anything, we’re little more than motivators, facilitators, and sometimes explicators. We all bring our superpowers, and we all help each other exercise them. And while the way we construct—and deconstruct—this process does have its challenges (and yes, even its flaws), it’s the best method we’ve found so far for breaking through barriers and getting down to business tapping into hidden strengths.

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Everyone is Family and Big-Brained and a Superhero…


For several reasons, we’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about how to characterize The Big-Brained Superheroes Club. Yes, we have many, many meetings and do many, many things. But what do we really do? No matter how many times we turn the problem around in our heads, we keep coming back to the same conclusion: Explaining things is complicated.

Sometimes, we, ourselves, try to explain The Big-Brained Superheroes Club through analogy: “Think Boys & Girls Club—but nerdier—meets Big Brothers Big Sisters—but in a community setting.” Nope.


Sometimes, those who observe and value what we do every week try to offer up their own analogies: “Imagine a science flash mob,” or “They’re…an…afterschool tutoring program…yeah…kind of…”. Nice try, guys!

As always, our young Big-Brained Superheroes are really the best at understanding and explaining the club: “Everyone is family”. True. And as good as that explanation is, it’s simultaneously too complex and too simple to be sufficiently illustrative.


Expand on the family theme with Einstein’s belief of what education should do—“The aim [of education] must be the training of independently acting and thinking individuals who, however, see in the service to the community their highest life problem”. (Third rule of explaining things: If you need to reconcile two seemingly irreconcilable ideas, start by quoting Einstein.)

And then, add to Einstein’s ideals for education our profound reliance on real-life superpowers, and you’re beginning to capture the essence of what it means to be a Big-Brained Superhero.


Simple, right?

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Big-Brained Superheroes Fight an Epic Battle


He comes back in the room, slaps his half-done homework onto the table in front of him, and puts his head down. It doesn’t take much Empathy to see that he’s feeling defeated, disenfranchised, downtrodden. So, what do we do? Do we reinforce his hurt and insecurities by criticizing him? Tell him to: Suck it up, kid, because learning how to multiply is way more important than whatever is going on in your brain right now?

Big-Brained Superheroes fight epic battles every single day. Some of the battles we all fight every now and then; some of them are fought relentlessly—without truce—by a precious few. Those Big-Brained Superheroes get dispatches, overt and covert, every single day telling them who they are and who they are not. Telling them what they are and are not capable of. And mostly, what they should and should not expect from a world that doesn’t always concern itself with tapping into their hidden strengths. Like the Avengers and like the X-men, they get it. It takes superhuman strength to fight for a world that doesn’t seem to fight so much for you.

Which is why sidekicks exist. Sidekicks may not have all the answers or know exactly what to say or do to defeat the villainy. We may even get distracted from time to time with our own battles. But, by default, we always come back to knowing who our priorities are. And no matter what, when we see a Big-Brained Superhero losing the battle, we know our job is to fight alongside—not against—him. So that when he raises his head, both victory and completed homework in hand, we can be there too. Right by his side. Helping show the world all the amazing things Big-Brained Superheroes, when we work together, can do.

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Big-Brained Superheroes vs. The Filter


One of the topics that comes up quite frequently with regard to The BBSC is our membership policy. As we explained many moons ago, The BBSC is an entirely voluntary, minimal barrier-to-entry after school/summer program open to pretty much anyone who happens to be around and wants to participate. No one is compelled to join and no one is prohibited from joining. Consequently, our 1-year BBSC roster is well over 115 Big-Brained Superheroes long while our meeting participation numbers can vary by as many as 35 young BBSes.

It’s easy to imagine the liabilities associated with this type of “structure”, and the reasons why it is so rarely embraced are innumerable. As we big-brained superheroes like to say, “If it were simple, everyone would be doing it.” But in spite of the many potentially rewarding aspects of applying The Filter, we have refrained for many reasons. For starters, those expunged by The Filter must invariably end up somewhere. And we deeply care where that is. Beyond this, where others may see a preponderance of liabilities in our program’s structure, we see assets:

  1. Our BBS volunteers and young BBSes get A LOT of superpower exercise. Seriously. A lot. And for a program, such as ours, dedicated to the exercise of superpowers, this asset is a biggie. It’s amazing what shifting the focus from fundamental outcomes to fundamental processes can do for a superhero.
  2. There’s tremendous power in diversity. Character and quirkiness are endemic to our Big-Brained Superheroes, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. Our young BBSes, in particular, come from so many different backgrounds and speak such a diversity of languages that they can’t help but be creative in their problem-solving (as well as in their troublemaking). And Creativity is a hugely important superpower to us.
  3. Our potential is limitless as is our capacity for surprise. By focusing on the whole instead of the part, we BBS volunteers willfully avoid categorizing and pigeon-holing our young BBSes. Who they are one day may be completely different from who they are the next, and it’s everyone’s job to see and stretch the potential in each set of strengths our fellow club members exhibit. While this may be a seemingly impossible task, we are big-brained superheroes, and it’s what we do.

So, why enumerate our structural assets now? Well, our recent Tumblr reminder that this website/blog is 1 year old combined with our human tendency to mark and ritualize certain measures of time may have something to do with it. Second, it’s just a good reminder for all of us—young and less young—as to why we do this business at least twice a week.  Finally, we all know what they say…superheroes gotta superpower.

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Big-Brained Superheroes vs. a World Too Small


Several months ago, one of our young big-brained superheroes asked a few of us BBS volunteers to attend her school play. This is the kind of thing we are always up for. Soccer games, school fairs, performances…if they ask, we do everything we can to get there. Not only because we big-brained superheroes stick together but because these events give us unique opportunities to learn much more about our young BBSes, and hopefully, create a better club as a result.

So, attend her performance we did, and learn we did. For instance, we learned from her teacher that our young BBS was struggling with her multiplication. This surprised us somewhat because, while we knew math was not her very favorite subject, she had always been able to accomplish what we asked of her. So, of course, the first thing we did was quiz her verbally in the school hallway while we waited for her mom to pick her up after the play.

"9X3?" "27." "8X5?" "40." "6X6?" "36."…

This young big-brained superhero answered every multiplication question we threw at her, casually and without hesitation. Just hanging out in the hallway, she went well above the level her teacher told us she was stuck at in class. Immediately, we had a sense of the problem, but just to be sure, we quizzed her again at our next BBSC meeting. Same result. And such is another deeply unsatisfying aspect of focusing so directly on outcomes—tests, in particular. We, quite frequently, aren’t very good at knowing what they measure.

In this case, the situation wasn’t as it might have seemed—that our young hero was incapable of doing multiplication. The situation was simply that she wasn’t completing 100 multiplication problems in class, on this particular test as written, within the 5 minutes allotted. And, to add yet more complexity to the situation, it was probably one of the more favorable aspects of her personality that kept her from succeeding in this area. She is a very calm, congenial young Big-Brained Superhero. And as such, she is less likely to feel the pressure one might need to feel in order to complete 100 problems in 5 minutes. If we had to guess, she simply proceeded to take this test in her own way—in her own time.

Ultimately, of course, we did have to guess. Because the test she took did very little to measure her fundamental knowledge of multiplication. There were simply too many variables involved. This is hardly a new or unusual phenomenon. But, from a distance, that’s frequently not how it seems. When looking at report cards and aggregate test scores, we often unconsciously view these as concrete, even objective, measures. Teachers may know better (or, at least, they should), but even with that knowledge, any amelioration efforts may seem ultimately futile.

Tests are everywhere. And yet, as far as we can tell, the process of much academic testing involves taking a whole wide world of variables, confounding them with even more variables, and then thinking we learned something from the outcome. And maybe we did learn something. But sadly, we probably don’t know what that is.

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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


"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 Superheroes Club Origins: Part 3 of X

BBS Buck

Subtitled: A Promise Kept.

In a recent installment of The Big-Brained Superheroes’ Handbook, we briefly discussed how the Big-Brained Superheroes Club economy works.  Basically, big-brained superheroes (yes, we’re moving beyond proper noun status—Oxford English Dictionary, here we come!) get rewarded for exercising their superpowers, such as Empathy, Kindness, Persistence, Sense of Adventure, etc.  Or, as we sometimes simplistically put it: We essentially created an economy based on being a nice person.  But our goals are quite a bit loftier than that.  We don’t want to just meet expectations as far as these skills are concerned.  We want to exceed expectations.  That’s why, when choosing a name for ourselves, we eschewed The Averagely Nice Person’s Club for something a bit more in line with our expectations and abilities.

However, one thing a big-brained superhero understands is that expectations and abilities aren’t enough to achieve our goals.  Another essential is motivation.  And while we’d all love to feel that the act of becoming a big-brained superhero is its own reward, inertia ain’t just a central rudiment of Newton’s First Law of Motion, if you know what we mean.  OK, what we mean is that getting from here to there takes work—both mental and physical.  It’s the mental work that we needed to jumpstart.

If you’ve read about Who we are…, you have a very general sense of how we’ve evolved as a club thus far.  However, there’s a muddle in the middle about how our reward system evolved*.  First, we tried various combinations of stickers and raffle tickets.  Over the summer, we moved to “powerbadges” (which were also stickers).  And, finally, The Big-Brained Superheroes Club mercantile is in effect.  And while the mercantile has only been in operation for a little over a month, it’s a clear winner in terms of both motivation and capacity building.

The motivational benefits of the BBSC mercantile (BBSmart?) are similar to those of the raffle system we were previously using in that both the bank and the raffle tickets enable real-time, rapid rewarding (essential for our young BBSes, we’ve found) and even provide a springboard for negotiation (sometimes, BBSes will engage us on how much they think their work is worth; we frequently encourage these discussions).  However, there are several benefits of the mercantile over the raffle.  First, the raffle outcome would sometimes feel unfair (to all parties), and as a result, it would actually demotivate.  We have much more control over how our current market system works.   Second, BBSes like to see their bank accounts grow day after day, so it’s got longer term motivation-driving potential.  In that respect, the market can do more to exercise our Persistence and Willpower superpowers than our raffle could.  Finally, as we mentioned in the handbook appendix, the market gives us a chance to price store items at the beginning of a club meeting, providing both a quick hit of motivation early on and a chance to do some negotiation and consensus-building.

As far as capacity building goes, the underlying philosophy of the BBSC is oriented toward helping us all help ourselves.  The finding and exercising of our superpowers is one aspect of that.  However, the BBS market system enables us to learn about other fundamental aspects of our current daily lives.  Money, math, interest, savings…those are useful things for us all to understand in today’s America.  But beyond that, we want our market to provide a basic intellectual foundation for some more direct entrepreneurial activities we are working toward.  Our nice-person-based economy knows no bounds!

* We should note, emphatically, that The Big-Brained Superheroes Club also evolved from rewarding general work to rewarding specific work, as we briefly address here.

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The Big-Brained Superheroes’ Handbook: Part 3 of X

Vitruvian Superhero

Yesterday, over half of our volunteer staff couldn’t make it to our Big-Brained Superheroes Club meeting. And being the small group that we are, we missed them severely. However, the shortage gave us a great opportunity to exercise our Adaptability superpower, and the way in which we exercised our Adaptability superpower brings us to Part 3 of X of our Big-Brained Superheroes’ Handbook

Rule #3: Playin’ for keeps is still playin’. (Thank you, Gambit.)  As you may have noticed by now, The Big-Brained Superheroes Club has very little use for somber. Sincere surely. Subtle sporadically. But somber scarcely.  The truth is that we Big-Brained Superheroes take our responsibilities so seriously that we simply can’t afford somber. Somber carries far too many opportunity costs.

The calculation is simple: How many hours in our lives are any of us going to be able/willing to sit somberly learning?  Now, how many hours are there in our lives? If we can agree that the answer to the first question is a small subset of the answer to the second question, we can start to see the cost of somber.  We can frequently do the sitting; we can frequently do the learning; we just can’t frequently do the somber. And if we, consciously or unconsciously, start to equate the learning with the somber, then, well, we’re losing countless opportunities.

So, when we ventured forth yesterday with 3/7ths of our volunteer staff, we chose to seek our learning opportunities on the basketball court, where somber isn’t even an option. And where the generally established rules and goals of the game would kindly supplement the boundaries and sense of purpose that our volunteer crew typically brings to club meetings. But, first, homework. With the added incentive of the impending basketball game, we finished our homework in record time yesterday. Before our club meeting was scheduled to start even. (Which, once again, indicates that our usual challenges are less connected to ability than they are to motivation.) And now that that’s over with…

Because The BBSC doesn’t have its own basketball and the community center was all out of them, some kids already on the court got to exercise their own Kindness and Teamwork superpowers and invite us to play with them. In fact, it wasn’t even a question—they wanted us in their game. (Challenge: How can we make The BBSC lab more like the basketball court in this respect? Maybe our young BBSes can help with this problem.) And once we started the game, the words “Teamwork” and “Leadership” frequently flew out of our mouths. “Sense of Adventure” even made several appearances. If we Big-Brained Superheroes spend a bit more time learning this game, the opportunities for articulating and exercising our superpowers appear almost limitless. Instead of exercising our superpowers while shooting hoops, we can be shooting hoops while exercising our superpowers. Opportunities, opportunities, opportunities.

Speaking of opportunities, when one of our young Big-Brained Superheroes spent her break time reading the gym’s Maximum Occupancy sign…opportunity!  First, we divided 456 (it’s a fairly large gym) by two and then by three. Next time, we’ll discuss it in terms of halves, thirds, and maybe even halves of halves or fourths.  Maybe then, we’ll discuss it relative to the number of people in the gym at the time.  And maybe after that even more opportunities will arise.

But we digress (such is one problem with learning)…Going back to Rule #3: If we here at The Big-Brained Superheroes Club had to create a slogan, it would never be “We make learning fun!”; it would be more along the lines of “We don’t make learning not fun!”.  (Which is, of course, why we’ll never make for good slogan-makers.)  Because, like Gambit, we see our very serious work for what it is—just another opportunity for some very serious play. And so it naturally follows that we see our very serious play as just another opportunity for some very serious work.

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