Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Impossible Things

This is the graduation speech that I gave today for my 8th year students.

Impossible Things
by Rebecca Kaplan

When Alice journeyed through the looking glass, Lewis Carroll tells us, she came across a Queen who claimed to be "one hundred and one, five months and a day."
“I can’t believe THAT!” said Alice.
“Can’t you?” said the Queen in a pitying tone. “Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.”
Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said, “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why sometimes I believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast!”

There is a lot to be said for believing in impossible things.  Especially when you are graduating from 8th grade...8th grade!  It is a very exciting time now.  I know today is exciting for a lot of reasons, but if’ you’ll bear with me, I am a science buff of sorts and a teacher, so I was really speaking about excitement in terms of educational research, sorry.

It’s an exciting time to be 13 or 14 years old!  For years and years, we’ve been living with the incredibly pessimistic paradigm that our share of intelligence is set from birth.  That, intellectually speaking, in the words of my 4 year old, “you get what you get and you don’t get upset”.  Now, we’ve found that the human brain doesn’t fully mature until you are 24 years old and that beyond that age, the influences on our brain structure and function are only limited by our interactions with the world.  

There has also been this false idea about the relationship between inheritance and how intelligent we are. The idea that our genes provide a fixed set of instructions to code for a certain level or type of intelligence is not supported by data.  In fact, genes don’t give fixed instructions for anything specific at all!  They are constantly switching on and off, in a dynamic interaction with the environment.  Anywhere we go, anything we do, anyone we speak with influences how our genetic material is expressed in our brain cells or any other cell!

What’s interesting to me is that the originator of the first widely used intelligence test was a man named Alfred Binet--he was the co-creator of the Binet-Simon intelligence test--wrote this in 1905:

"[Some] assert that an individual's intelligence is a fixed quantity which cannot be increased. We must protest and react against this brutal pessimism...With practice, training, and above all method, we manage to increase our attention, our memory, our judgment, and literally to become more intelligent than we were before."

It was this IQ test that was changed and adapted by a researcher at Stanford named Terman, and gave us the ubiquitous Stanford-Binet IQ test along with giving us the idea of a fixed quantity intelligence.

So, to our extraordinary 8th years:
Believing impossible things is an imperative, especially now that the newer field of systems biology is showing us that no gene can be studied independently from it’s environment, and the environment that your genes are growing up in includes the thoughts you are thinking about what your cells can do or not do!

Carol Dweck, an award winning researcher who is currently at Stanford University wrote a research paper called “Is Math a Gift?”.  She found that when students have a certain intellectual ability and view that intellectual ability as a gift (that is, a fixed quantity...unchangeable...something you inherit like the family silver) this leads students to question that ability and lose motivation when they encounter setbacks. In contrast, viewing intellectual ability as a quality that can be developed leads students to seek active and effective remedies in the face of difficulties.

I’d like to translate that for you:  Believe Impossible Things!  And if you practice believing impossible things, you’ll get even better at believing those impossible things AND better at actually doing the things you’re imagining you can do that you never thought you could!  

This is a pretty mind-blowing idea.  Think about that for a moment.  

So, kids, this is a really exciting time to be 13 or 14 and graduating from 8th grade....you have about a full decade or so until you have figured out what you are capable of, and then you have the unmitigated joy of being able to go about the business of fulfilling those capacities.  

What I’m  talking about when I say capacity is creative capacity, intellectual capacity, capacity for compassion or love.  All of these are complex human traits, and what the recent research is telling us is that we can influence all of them.  If you want more creativity, you can have it.  If you want more intelligence, you can have that.  If you want more love, you can even have that too.  We can influence these traits through our teaching and parenting and
we can influence them with our thoughts, desires and actions as individuals.  

I’d like to close with a favorite poem of mine, called Wild Geese written by the Pulitzer-Prize winning American Poet, Mary Oliver:
Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting--
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
© Mary Oliver.

8th years:
You are infinite and amazing.
Believe. impossible. things.  Every single day.  For at least 30 minutes. :)
Congratulations...I will miss you!


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