Using Mindful Structure, Stories and Enrichment to Build Both Culture and Community (and maybe improve attendance?) in School

My name was used as a verb recently.

The person that did it told me so. She even described the context in which she used my name when I asked. Maybe she was going to tell me anyway but I was so excited I jumped in and asked to hear the whole story. I mean to think: my name as a verb!

Like a force of nature almost.

Like some dynamic that might influence the world or instigate some movement or something!

Okay, I’m getting carried away. But wow. My name as a verb! 

I guess it came out sorta like this:

“I don’t mean to ‘Dan McConnell’ this, but…”

Of course, thinking back I realize I could have been the in absentia butt of some joke. Like when someone says Boy you really Shleprocked that! But in this case, I asked for an explanation because I sensed that it was a good thing. This person and I are pretty tight philosophically and ideologically, though there is a disparity in the intensity of our deliveries.

Turns out it was pretty good. I was proud to have had my name dropped in this situation.

So in just a moment here, I’m going to give my impression, like an impressionist would, of the conversation in which my name became definition worthy. But understand it’s before 5 AM right now. The sun isn’t up. My coffee has slid from out-of-the-pot hot to piss warm and I need to think it out before I write it out, which isn’t usually my way. So you aren’t going to see this happen but it really is about to: I’m going to “freshen up” as real men say.

Hey, you’re still here and my coffee is once again hot! Win-win I say. But back to that conversation where my name became a verb (because in a bit I’ll take another break to crack today’s WORDLE).

It was a conversation where one side represented an insistence that there be more lockstep alignment and assimilation, where everyone was doing the same thing, was on the same agenda, same page, and everyone knew exactly what everyone else was doing and when and how… Essentially “you will be assimilated”, join the Borg collective or the consortium, or whatever you want to call it. 

An important aside here is that in my mind, teamwork is vital, and I am not opposed to a shared agenda. In fact, if all involved in the endeavor to educate were empowered to share the agenda to actually do what’s best for learners, especially our youngest learners, I am 100% on board. But when predetermined structures imposed from outside and above demand humans be viewed and valued first by the statistically normed assessment data they produce, and diminish the value of learners and professionals who know better, you’re not doing teamwork. You’re doing surrender and compliance.

That “mindful structure” in the title gets turned into a functional structure. It’s how you set up efficiency and cost-effectiveness first and tweak for obedience and performance, not how you grow minds and culture, and community. It’s the way you train dogs and tune engines, not the way you should raise or educate young people.

And here I’m getting ahead of myself again, goin and gettin’ all preachy.

When it’s about children, learning, and people in general that happens. So here’s my description of how this man became a verb. I may lean into the drama, sure. I know I think through my feelings filter a lot when I should feel through my thinking filter instead. But my god it makes life worth living.

My name was used to put words to the thinking that children and people be treated more like the varied, beautiful individuals that they are and that maybe that is the truer path in the human endeavor to educate. 

Use my name as that sorta verb every day of the week.

Now, here’s the thing. Education isn’t simply a “human endeavor”, as in some theoretical warm-and-fuzzy concept, or one that can be allowed to be discussed in broad conceptual word-strokes.

Education does need to have a purpose, and it needs to serve a purpose. In order to meet these purposes it needs to have structure and a plan. Using Mindful Structure, Stories and Enrichment as the path, with the plan being to empower learners to engage with culture and build community, we could start making education actually feel like the human endeavor it is supposed to be.

Okay, I’m chopping here. There’s a bunch more typed below but I have edits to make, coffee to warm, lunch to pack (NYS Math test day 2…ugh). What comes next is me describing the structure I have used and like to set up. For my own daughters, for my students, and for the zone I operate in. Pretty simple, really. Simple rules, close observation and facilitation, and plenty of out-of-the-box opportunities…

I really hate them boxes. I work with roundy pegs. Okay stop, WORDLE time.


Storytime: How our Stories Echo

Chloe was home from college on break. This past Thanksgiving, maybe. She and I were watching the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, and near the end, at the point where Hector Barbosa gets shot, and is first dismissive of Captain Jack Sparrow, almost condescending-believing his undead status provided him protection at that moment from such foolishness as being shot.

“Ten years you carry that pistol and now you waste yer shot,” he says.

Here, an echo.

If you’ve watched the movie you know that Barbosa himself gave Jack that pistol with that one shot believing that the madness and suffering of having been left stranded on a deserted island would lead Jack to use that pistol and that one shot. On himself. To end his own suffering. Instead, Jack uses the pistol and his one shot to shoot Barbosa.

A moment he’s waited ten years for.

Of course, Barbosa is mocking and taunting at first, it’s part of his charm. But then he realizes Will Turner has dropped the last cursed coins and a bit of blood onto the stack gathered, finally breaking the curse that came with every one of those coins. Barbosa stands frozen in place. A remarkable moment of blaring silence following the hectic and fast-paced fight scene involving multiple participants in a cave holding untold amounts of pirate treasure, including the cursed gold that the Black Pearl and its crew had sailed the world to retrieve.

Having torn his coat open to first see the blooming flower of blood soaking through his shirt, and then lifting his chin to stare off at some nothing in particular beautiful thing, the pirate has an expression owning his face. There was a split second of surprise, maybe. He’s been bested. But his expression changed into something else.

And then he says “I feel…”

It is at this moment that Chloe hits PAUSE, freezing that face to the screen.

Another echo.

“Dad, I remember sitting on your lap watching this with you when I was like four or five years old, and you stopped it right here and asked me ‘What do you think he’s feeling right there?’” Chloe said.

“What was your answer?” I asked.


We had a brief conversation at that moment, about that moment in the movie. About that expression, what it meant, the amazing delivery of actor Geoffry Rush… Even more important: we talked about the connection between the there-it-was-again frozen moment on the screen and it happened-back-then earlier moment. How when you pay attention, you hear more echoes.

Engaging with these moments when they arise, with intent, is a powerful technique for growing a mind. One of my favorite things to think about, talk about, and write about is taking advantage of the earliest opportunities to do this with young learners because it’s vital for building that brainpower. Especially as a parent in the earliest years up to five years old, but then as an educator- in that 5 to 10-year-old zone, those elementary school years.

What I really love is using it to plant those echoes, to drop a thought, a question…to set up the moments still to come.

There must be a sense within that young mind when it dares to reach out and then makes some independent discovery.

An “Aha!” turns into an “I did it!”, an intrinsic reward and a sense of accomplishment that leads to self-motivation, an “I can do it!”. I had stopped to explore this Barbosa thing with the four-year-old Chloe in my lap, she had seen the connection to an earlier story moment, and here I was exploring it again with an all-grown-up Chloe who had paused it herself, just as I once had.

That earlier moment in Barbosa’s story, and in our story, had echoed.

As my little stinker grew into a thinker she began to see this type of connection on her own, without having it pointed out to her. She has become a brilliant writer and storyteller. We can now discuss moments like the Barbosa one in the context of technique and purpose- how similar intent applies and is evident in other movies and in other stories. Making those connections had become a collaborative exercise.

With all three of my daughters, I was able to engage them at home in all sorts of interactive play during storytime, bathtime, and diaper changes… So many things became events with characters and roles to be played. So many nights Dad got scolded for not just reading a story and instead getting the children all riled up at bedtime.

While the more formal learning environment of school doesn’t offer all of those opportunities, connecting ourselves as human beings to each other and engaging in narratives together, through our observed, lived, explored, and shared stories, is vital in providing a true education.

Once young learners become adept at engaging with stories and making all those connections with the others around them, of seeing how stories and characters evolve and how their own stories develop, they also become more prepared to generalize the skills employed to their own lives. They are better able to understand how actions and plans can be means to some ends: in-the-moment decisions, day-to-day decisions, and maybe even long-term plans.

Practicing with learners how to slow down to explore that dynamic in fiction, with fictional characters in fictional situations, and then connecting similar themes in plotlines in real-life stories around us, spotting how actions come with consequences or rewards…

It might even show that motivation and unwavering commitment can pay off!

Just as it had with end-of-movie Barbosa.

The earlier movie event in Barbosa’s character trajectory was after the crew of the Black Pearl had raided Port Royal, called there by the power of the last gold coin. The character of Elizabeth Swann, a prisoner of the pirates for having given the name Turner instead of Swann, stabs Barbosa. Much like in the later scene, he is dismissive and even menacing. It’s about to be revealed to “Miss Turner” that these are no ordinary pirates.

Barbosa says:

“Look! The moonlight shows us for what we really are. We are not among the livin’ and so we cannot die, but neither are we dead. For too long I’ve been parched of thirst and unable to quench it. Too long I’ve been starvin’ to death and haven’t died. I feel nothing. Not the wind on my face nor the spray of the sea. Nor the warmth of a woman’s flesh.”

There is real desperation in the man’s eyes as he tells her this. He isn’t relishing the murderous spree and pillaging. He is desperate to truly live again. To feel.

That moment when reflected back upon makes the final “I feel…” There was an echo for Barbosa there. He lamented the “too long” he had gone without feeling a thing, and now he was almost euphoric, realizing that he could finally feel. There was an echo for Chloe and I as well. The powerful moment in the movie had woven itself together with a powerful moment of ours that echoed from the past where we had shared it all then in a way that helped us to share it again nearly twenty years later.

So how can educators use this idea of echoes and connections to benefit their students in school?

I’ll start getting to that next. And just as an FYI, that angel all grow’d up just texted me a picture of Chef Gordon Ramsey’s ass.

That’s a story that’ll echo later on. You should take note because I loooove to play the long game with shit like that.