October 10

Autotdidact \ˌȯ-tō-ˈdī-ˌdaktˈ\ : a self-taught person (Part 2)

In part 1 of my story of autodidacts found here, I describe an experience my son went through last spring, moving from oh-no-let-me-run-away to being labeled an autodidact by his German professor. He has continued his German learning this fall, with the same professor. At least he knows what to expect!

It has been very interesting to watch from the sidelines as he has grown from I’m-still-not-so-sure-I-have-what-it-takes-to-succeed to enthusiastically embracing the challenges his professor offers. Among a class of about 15 students, he and one other are more “advanced,” so the professor has invited them to take on more demanding work. One thing about this professor that thrills me is he uses real literary works, not a dry, dusty textbook. This is in keeping with the project-based learning (PBL) principle of authenticity, defined by the Buck Institute for Education as  “real-world context, tasks and tools, quality standards, or impact – or speaks to students’ personal concerns, interests, and issues in their lives.”


The professor recently gave these two students a German-language graphic novel version of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and is meeting with them one-on-two to discuss the book and to give them individualized assignments. My son arrived home and enthusiastically showed me the book, marveling at the fine artwork. In addition, with a grin he said “Mom, by the time I go to college, I will be ready to do my capstone in German.” [He is dual-enrolled, receiving both high school and college credit, as he is a high school sophomore.] How far he has come, from that uncertain learner to total confidence in his success. I wish every student’s experience could have such a magnificent outcome!

October 10

Downton Abbey & Frog and Toad – a #twistedpair

In response to Steve Wheeler’s #twistedpair prompt, I combined the British TV series Downton Abbey with the timeless classic early reader series Frog and Toad, written by Arnold Lobel.

Downton Abbey and Frog and Toad both declare unequivocally that life contains many unexpected turns and outcomes. In “The Corner,” Frog tells Toad how when he was young, his father once told him “spring is just around the corner.” Frog proceeds to explore various “corners,” and encounters many things, but not spring. Congruent with this, Downton Abbey character Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham (played by Maggie Smith) declares at one point, “All life is a series of problems which we must try and solve.” Every education experience should similarly contain “corners” and problems, sometimes uncomfortable ones, for both the teacher and the students.

Frog and Toad are Friends book cover

In the story “The Kite,” Frog is holding the ball of kite string, and Toad is running with the kite. The first attempts to get the kite to fly end in failure. Three robins who are watching laugh at Toad and tell him the kite will not fly. Each time, Toad tells Frog they should give up, and each time Frog tells him to try again.

Eventually, the kite “flew into the air. It climbed higher and higher.” Frog summarizes their experience by saying “If a running try did not work, and a running and waving try did not work, and a running, waving, and jumping try did not work, I knew that a running, waving, jumping, and shouting try just had to work.”

We all have encountered some of those robin naysayers. We need to model Frog’s attitude to our students, and not only teach, but also live, the growth mindset, wherein we believe that solutions are not always evident the first time, and that learning from mistakes and failure helps us grow. It is also important to show kindness and encouragement, just as Frog does.  And, we need to be willing to say “I don’t know” to questions students may ask, and then learn alongside them, exemplifying what it  means to be a #lifelonglearner. Just as Frog does, when after exploring many “corners,” sees his mother and father working in the garden, and flowers growing. As he explains to Toad, “I was very happy. I had found the corner that spring was around.”

If a running try did not work, and a running and waving try did not work, and a running, waving, and jumping try did not work, I knew that a running, waving, jumping, and shouting try just had to work.

In Downton Abbey, which depicts a gentrified family and their servants as they face the sweeping social changes of the 20th Century, Violet Crawley is very stately, dignified and seemingly strait-laced. Yet, not long into the series, it becomes apparent she has a great deal of compassion for the difficulty of choices her three granddaughters face.

Violet Crawley - Series of Problems

When one of these young women, Edith, is considering working as a writer for a newspaper office, other members of the family plead for Violet to “talk sense into her,” to get her to understand that a woman’s place is in the home. In response, Violet states “I do think a woman’s place is eventually in the home, but I see no harm in her having some fun before she gets there.” She further says “And another thing. I mean, Edith isn’t getting any younger. Perhaps she isn’t cut out for domestic life.” At the same time, The Dowager seeks to instill mental strength into these young woman, at one point telling Edith “Don’t be defeatist dear, it’s very middle class.”

As teachers, we work with students who are also faced with many choices; influenced by their peers, their parents, their environment, and the constant media bombardment. Just like Violet Crawley, we need to set a standard of conduct for ourselves that exemplifies mature adult behavior (which does not mean we cannot have fun!). At the same time, we need to show compassion, seeking to truly know our students, and to connect with them in their reality.

Although Frog and Toad and Downton Abbey are intended for different audiences, they both portray that human beings (which include all our students!) are complex, in need of encouragement and support, but also invigorated by challenge. 

“Downton Abbey Violet Crawley Quotes.” . QuotesGram. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Oct. 2015.
Fellowes, Julian. “Downton Abbey, Season 3, Episode 7.” IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 09 Oct. 2015.
Fellowes, Julian. “Downton Abbey, Season 4, Episode 8.” IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 09 Oct. 2015.
Lobel, Arnold. Days with Frog and Toad. New York: Harper & Row, 1979. Print.
Lobel, Arnold. Frog and Toad All Year. New York: Harper & Row, 1976. Print.