Accidental Symbols … or How I Climbed Back on the Horse

Man Mounting Horse

In a recent post,, I discussed Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen’s  new book, Thanks for the Feedback:  the Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well.    The authors take a fresh look at feedback, noting the barrage of communication we receive on a daily basis, in our personal and professional lives, suggesting that the key to successful feedback is in the ear of the receiver, who holds the power to decide if and how to respond to a message.

As promised at the end of the essay, I purchased a copy of the book to learn more about how to be a better feedback recipient.  It has proven to be a very engaging read, and prompted me to share an experience I had last summer with feedback.

Last spring I was a finalist for a teaching award at my place of work.  I had been nominated in the past, but this was the first time I’d reached this stage, in which you are required to conduct a teaching demonstration before a group of panelists who sit on the school’s foundation committee.  I was told to prepare a 20-minute teaching demonstration and to “wow” the judges.

Since I wanted the demonstration to be an authentic rendition of what I would typically do in one of my classes, I decided to focus my presentation on physical knowledge theory, a concept explored in my Math and Science for Young Children course.  The theory basically conveys ways young children learn how objects behave and move in space, and how they derive information from acting on objects — for example,  how differently a Nerf ball responds when thrown as opposed to a small rubber ball.  I often talk with students about how this theory is an excellent way to discuss children’s first experiences with physics.  Doing this demonstration, then, would require me to engage the panelists in an application of that theory.

Not surprisingly, I spent many hours preparing the presentation, timing out every segment, just the way I do for my classes — the introduction, overview of the concept, application activity, a brief reflection, and a conclusion.

My presentation was scheduled for 8am, in a familiar area of the school.  The presentations were to be done in a conference room where I have spent many hours in various meetings and actually had my initial interview for the job.  I arrived at 7:45, as the first candidate was conducting a presentation.  At one point there was an explosion of laughter and I thought, “It’s going well for whoever is in there.”  I chatted with the secretary seated nearby as the minutes ticked away, and 8am came and went.  At approximately 8:12, the presenter emerged from the room and I was escorted inside by a male panelist.  While walking in, I wondered how the time frame would be handled, given that I was starting nearly fifteen minutes late.

Over the years of teaching and conducting workshops, I have learned to quickly scan the environment and audience, and gauge the energy in the room — a practice enables you to make last-minute adjustments before beginning your presentation.

No friendly aura existed in this setting.  The moment I walked into the room I sensed it, and began smiling my way through my first steps. Eight men and women sat around the conference table, name tags scattered haphazardly before them.  Breakfast food and dishes were arranged on a table at one end of the room, the smell of cooked eggs hanging in the air.  No greetings or introductions were made.   Expressionless faces.  Dead silence.  Perhaps this was a tactic of the panelists to test the mettle of the presenter.   It was unexpected and rather confusing.

Muppets in Audience

The gentleman who had escorted me in said, “OK, Sheila, go ahead.”  Having entered survival mode, I began introducing myself as I pulled the materials from my bag: a set of handouts summarizing physical  knowledge theory, a package of toys for each presenter, to be used later, the materials for the group game, and a set of 3 x 5 index cards.

After introducing myself and summarizing my role at the college and explaining the class I was about to demonstrate, Low Point 1 hit:  the gentleman who had escorted me in told me to move things along.   Putting on my best polite self, and meta-cognating that I was now being forced to do my presentation in half the time allotted, possibly so that the judges could maintain the morning schedule.

Super Balls

I distributed the handout and packages of toys, asking the panelists to remove the toys and briefly try them out — to play with them.  Each package held a top, a 1-inch rubber ball, and a plastic frog.  These toys were intended to convey physical knowledge theory in action.  Things seemed to relax a bit as they manipulated the toys, and I worked to make comments about how the objects responded to their actions.

Low Point 2 came as I asked the group to return the toys to their bags in preparation for the next segment.  One gentleman took his rubber ball, leaned over the table and feigned throwing it at me, laughing.  I, in full-tilt teaching mode, and without skipping a beat, responded by saying, “Oops … let’s remember ‘Be Kind, Be Safe, Be Neat’ — this is a safe classroom,” (the very thing I would say to a young child or to model in a demonstration to students).   He seemed to relish his act, grinning at fellow panelists.

Balloons and Sheet Game

I moved on to the core activity, Bed Sheet Ping Pong, a simple game that requires team mates to hold up a sheet, and move a ping pong ball across the surface.  The object is to send the ping pong ball off the opponents’ side of the sheet.  (The image above is a close rendition of the game, using balloons.)   I directed the group to play a brief best-of-3 game, with one team beating the other 3 to 1.  They actually smiled and laughed during the game, especially when the ball struck the ceiling on more than one occasion.

Low point 3 came as I gathered up the sheet when the game was over.  The same man who pretended to throw the rubber ball at me took the ping pong ball, leaned forward and threw it at me, laughing again.  I shifted to my right as it sailed briefly through the air, then  bounced on the table,  whereupon I caught it and gathered it up in the sheet.

The presentation ended with a classroom assessment technique, which involved having the panelists write down one new concept they’d learned about physical knowledge and one question they had.  I reminded them that the package of toys were theirs to keep, along with the handouts.  Several panelists, though, pushed them back toward me along the table or simply left them there.

I thanked them for their time and this opportunity to share my teaching experiences, and packed up my materials as quickly as I could as the silence hung in the air that felt cold enough to hang meat.  As I walked out, I considered that dropping through a trap door or disappearing in a puff of smoke would have been preferable exit modes.

Such was this experience of feedback and failure.  It hung on me for several days.  I replayed it in my mind many times, trying to understand why my reception had been so negative — how much of it  was me, and how much of it was the audience.  I was certainly surprised by what I perceived as a lack of civility and professionalism given that this was a group of successful, experienced professionals who were there to highlight their appreciation for excellence in teaching.

I had my other reality-based thoughts, as well, of course:  Early Childhood Education is just not sexy for many folks/the classic lack of respect for the field/the false dichotomy between playfulness and learning/”fun” activities a-scholarly, etc.

I also considered what I may have done wrong:  Was it my choice of activity?  Was I speaking too quickly?   Taking too long to come the core of the presentation, even with all the hours of planning, and all my years of teaching and workshop experience?  Should I not have reminded the ball-throwing gentleman about safety?  Was there, unbeknownst to me,  a flaky dry booger fluttering from one of my nostrils each time I exhaled?

On top of this, the materials for the Bed Sheet Ping Pong game took on an identity of their own — they became the Accident Symbol of this bad experience.  Stored in the closet of my study at home, they were a constant reminder, every time I opened the door, almost  taking on human language skill, as if to ask me, “Have you forgotten about us?  Why have you abandoned us?”  It was like the scene in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, when he is rescuing the animals from the burning pet store, and guiltily avoids the snakes with each return to the building, until he finally stumbles out with a fistful of the slithering creatures clutched in his hands, only to fall in a dead faint on the sidewalk.

Here is where Stone and Heen’s perspective on feedback is so instructive.  Several principles are particularly helpful in re-thinking this experience.  Allow me to isolate three.

First, they suggest that our own temperament influences how we experience feedback — yes, brain research continues to suggest that hard wiring and brain functioning may  influence to a certain degree the “emotional swing” one experiences with feedback, especially negative feedback.  My emotional swing lasted several days before I was able to allow it to fade into the background.  While this isn’t necessarily new information, the research bolsters the mind-body connections we grapple with as humans.

Second, we all have “blind spots” — that space between how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us.  Stone and Heen say the primary blind spots nest in our face, our tone of voice, and our behavior patterns.  Whew.  In their reference to our “leaky face,” they explain the irony of how evolution has made us skilled at reading each others’ faces, but unable to effectively see how we convey multiple –or at least, unintended messages, with our own facial expressions.  (I have received mountains of feedback about my own face since childhood.  Many years ago someone said, “I get paragraphs from you.”  All this has reinforced my sense that steering away from a career in the CIA was a smart move.)

Third, the authors suggest that we often “distort” the feedback we receive, though we have it within our power to re-work it and extract valuable points for critical self-knowledge.  Suggestions here include knowing your own pattern of response to feedback, figuring out what the information is and is not, and my personal favorite:  accepting that you can’t control how others  see you.   This isn’t news, either — but so refreshing, and such an excellent reminder to get over ourselves.  Stone and Heen  go on to say that most people aren’t thinking about us because they’re so caught up in thinking about themselves, anyway.  Welcome to the world.

Even before stumbling upon Thanks for the Feedback, though, I must  have begun moving forward after my unfortunate teaching demonstration.  Last fall I pulled out the materials for the Bed Sheet Ping Pong game and used it in a different course, on Guidance, to demonstrate to students how the activity could teach important social skills such as de-centering and cooperation.  Students loved it.  I did it again in this same class this semester — and used it in three presentations earlier this week with high school students as part of a Career Exploration event.   It was a great success.  So … audiences differ, no?

At the end of the week I realized that the ping pong game had re-captured its original value and delight for me as a teacher and practitioner in my profession.  It was no longer an accidental symbol.   I had climbed back on the horse.  It was fun again.

I hope to begin incorporating elements of Stone and Heen’s book into my teaching on a regular basis.  I’m curious to see how I begin responding to feedback from this point forward, and how students begin to perceive the role of feedback in their lives.

In retrospect, perhaps it was a wise move to re-consider the original activity for my teaching demonstration:  the Strength Test.  It involves a raw egg.

Wanna try it?

Person Squeezing Egg in Hand

Take a raw egg.  Grab a bucket or large bowl.  Hold the egg in the palm of your hand, as in the photo above.  Squeeze as hard as you can.

What happened?  Write and let me know!

And tell me about your own next experience with feedback.  Onward ho, everyone!





A Cat is Not a Dog

photo (2)

Rex W. Huppke has written another side-splitting column in the March 13 Chicago Tribune, this time covering a story out of Oregon about a couple who fled their cat —  locking themselves, their infant daughter, and their dog in the bedroom and calling police for help.

While few details are provided, it is apparent that the cat scratched the infant’s forehead — an appropriate  reason for concern and for separating animal and human infant.  But it seems the father kicked the cat in its posterior, sending it into a frenzy.  (Perhaps not allowing a cat within miles of a baby would have been the wiser move in the first place, but no one solicited my opinion.)  It turns out that the police arrived at the home and restrained the cat readily.

Huppke makes wonderful hay of this story, warning readers about violent house cats who may very well murder their human masters, with full premeditation.

But as a long-time, devoted cat owner, I felt compelled to piggy-back on this column, and join the legions of feline fans who have so passionately strived to educated their brethren about the  noblesse of cats — to defend their nature and dispel the lingering myths about these graceful creatures.

Let’s face it.  Most Americans, at least, prefer dogs to cats.  These folks just don’t get it.  Don’t get me wrong here.  I grew up with dogs and I love them.  But cats always get a bad rap.

Dogs are from Makemake and cats are from Shangri la.

I’m tired of hearing that old saw about cats being cold, mean, dangerous, unfeeling, cranky, and finicky.  The truth is that cats know what they want.  They don’t pretend.  They’re not trying to please anyone.  They don’t get caught up in a dysfunctional relationship dance — they refuse to play that game. They have standards to maintain about food choices.  They’re natural hunters.  They have an amazing ability to move in space and adjust to its contours.  They are fastidious groomers.  They don’t take crap from anyone.


Where is the real animal in this picture?

Yet, we overlook their true soft side, their cuddliness, their brains, their playfulness, and their ability to connect with humans.

Cat with Boy Reading Book

Dogs get so much credit for that — probably because their unconditional love, in the form of face-licking, tail wagging, and pawing makes us feel so secure.  Cats are just a little less direct about it.  They have their dignity to maintain, after all.

Allow me to offer proof, from the experience with my own lovely Fiona, who is pictured at the opening of this essay.  (Is that a charming photo or what, by the way?)

Fiona is highly communicative, intelligent, and sensitive to all aspects of her environment.  She is quick to note sounds of all kinds, human, and non-human, and she runs to investigate their origin.

She’s a talker.  Her meows communicate various ideas or needs.  A soft, gurgly meow is often a greeting.  A low, guttural  meow is an alert that she is bringing me a “kill” in the form of her little stuffed animal, “Blue Bear.”   Here she is lying next to him in her cat bed.

photo (1)

A continuous, whiny meow indicates that she thinks she deserves another cat snack.  My response to this demand must be careful, as she is a bit like a goldfish in her love of cat snacks.  She used to conduct this whining act adjacent to the cabinet in which said snacks are stored.  But she has learned to track me down in other rooms of the house to make the pronouncement, and, if I allow her to, leads me directly to the cabinet for a final plea.

She is able to track the movements of an outdoor animal, be it a fox or a neighborhood feline interloper, by running at warp-speed from window to window inside the house, until, of course, there is nowhere else to run.

She can open sliding doors by pulling on the door with both front paws.  She has been known to escape to the back yard deck using this maneuver, slinking and sniffing around the furniture as if this is perfectly natural.

She thoroughly enjoys a game of hide and seek, attempting to wait out her human counter-part behind a curtain, wall , or cabinet.  If the waiting proves too long, she simply pounces.  If you pop out first, she leaps straight into the air like a geyser, then melts into thin air.

She delights in games with cat toys — everything from feathers to laser toys to a wadded up piece of paper.  But when she’s finished, she finished, indicating her spent energy by plopping down with satisfaction and a contented stare.

She picks up on human moods and emotions.  Truth be told — when I learned that my sister Liz had passed away and was crying, Fiona rubbed back and forth against my legs and shadowed me for the rest of that evening.  (This was more likely her own distress at my strong emotion, but it’s interesting to consider that she came to me rather than isolating herself.)

She greets you upon arrival, either circling and caressing your leg, or dropping to the floor and turning onto her back — a sign of trust, relaxation, and cat happiness.

She is deft enough to jump into an open cabinet and not disturb one glass or dish.  She has performed this fete in our kitchen several times, before I can scoop her up, and at least once in a dining room hutch full of crystal.   I am alternately unsettled and amazed by this maneuver.

She is a huntress.  Yes, this means I must divulge that she has caught a mouse or two inside the house.  And I keep a clean house.  I swear.  She sometimes engages in that agonizing slow death dance of tossing the poor creature back and forth, like a tiny beach ball, while it squeaks faintly, until I can get in between them and give the mouse a chance to perish elsewhere, more quietly.  Other times she seems to just chase them in circles until they die from dizziness.  And yes, other times, they are just too fast for her and she just can’t close the deal.

Now let’s bring this full circle.  A cat is not a dog.  But cats can be very sweet, just like dogs.  And many live together harmoniously.

Cat and Dog Together


So let’s be good to our dogs, but be gooder to our cats, OK?   My thanks to Rex W. Huppke for another hilarious column.

Finally, I offer this ode to my own kitty:

If I didn’t have my Fiona, I’d feel very sad and alone-a.




Let’s go play!

Children Playing Circle Game “Go outside and play!  It’s a beautiful day,” my mother often admonished us when we were small, and had not yet ventured outdoors on a sunny day.  She considered it a wasted day if we stayed inside when the weather was fine … though it’s also possible she was eager for a respite from the daily grind of parenting. We logged many hours of outdoor play growing up in Atlanta — adventures to which I’ve alluded in previous posts.  During summer, especially, we spent nearly the entire day outside, from early in the morning until after dark, breaking only for meals at home.  Activities involved all forms of play, which I’ll describe in a moment. The sad truth is that play as a fundamental part of childhood , especially outdoor play, seems to be receding further into the  shadows of most children’s early years.  It must be saved before it disappears completely. An article in the Washington Post , printed in the Health and Family section of the February 19 Chicago Tribune, focuses on recess in schools, and notes something early childhood practitioners have known for years:  outdoor play holds an array of developmental benefits for children.  Recess as a daily part of the school routine has all but vanished from schools across the country, giving way to the pervasive focus on testing and assessment of children’s academic performance.  Increased time for standardized test preparation and test-taking has edged outdoor play from the mindset of school personnel as a valuable component of children’s experiences. Trio of Children with Beachball in Meadow For some schools, though, the reasons for keeping children inside are more complex, often involving safety concerns.  High-crime and gang activity can make recess a high-stakes venture, severely limiting time spent outdoors or eliminating it altogether. Either way, children pay a developmental price when they don’t have consistent opportunities for outdoor play.  Eliminating play to make room for building attention span, instructional time, and strong performance on standardized tests are counter-productive.  These practices continue despite the 2012 position taken by the American Academy of Pediatrics advocating recess for its all-around benefits to children. Mari-Jane Williams, author of the Post article, profiles Playworks, a non-profit organization that is coming to the rescue of recess in schools across the country.  This nonprofit group has the right idea about play.  Play coaches are hired to work directly with school personnel to plan structured recess activities that fit within the school’s curriculum and support children’s physical, social and emotional development.  Check out their web site here: . Silhouette of Children with Ball What’s interesting about Playworks is not so much the activities and materials themselves, but the social and emotional support embedded in the outdoor experiences developed collaboratively with teacher and play coaches.  Children are coached to become fully involved in the play, and to learn the social skills so critical to getting along in a group, expressing feelings appropriately, and resolving conflict — skills every individual on the planet must learn, to some degree, to have a productive and valuable life.  The loss of recess in schools has interrupted this vital experience. Consider for a moment how they teach children to solve disputes.   The classic Rock-Paper-Scissors game does the trick.  Just think how many adult conflicts might have been solved in the work place or at home were this approach taken … it’s a start, at least. Children Digging in Mud Teachers and principals who’ve participated in the Playworks initiative have reported many benefits to programming, including more productive outdoor play, fewer behavior problems, less bullying, and smoother transitions to classroom work, post-outdoor play. Child Blowing Bubbles We early childhood folks really see no separation between play, in its myriad of forms, and potential learning and development.  There are so many ways to play:  sensory play, rough-and-tumble play, block play, fantasy (pretend) play, board games, card games, group games … and the list goes on.    Yet this natural inclination in children, which encourages self-knowledge, understanding of others, and understanding of the world, is yanked out from under them at the very time they are transforming into beings who delightedly act on this learning. Girl at Stream Allow me to make you an Instant Play Expert.  Simply read the following list of the benefits of play, and you, too, can understand, and advocate in your own personal way the value of play. Play makes children smarter since it supports critical thinking, concept development, creativity, and knowledge about how the physical world works. Toddler with Hoe Play makes children healthier because it builds small muscles, large muscles, eye-hand coordination, balance, agility, stamina, and appropriate energy release. Hopskotch Play makes children more together emotionally and socially by supporting the ability to control impulses, delay gratification, engage in perspective-taking, learn how to be a friend and make a friend, resolve conflicts, wait, take turns, negotiate ideas, persevere in a project, take risks, and win or lose gracefully. Children do not learn all these skills spending their days indoors.  I am not denying the benefits of all the learning and growth that happens in the classroom — or I would not have entered the teaching profession myself.  But the avenue for figuring out of to just be in the world, and build a happy and productive life, is through this intrinsically pleasurable and powerful experience of play.  Children are driven to do it.  And we should embrace it. Children Playing in Sprinkler Indulge me for just a moment as I take a little trip down the memory lane of my own childhood of outdoor play.   What a deliciously fine time it was. We roller skated; biked; sledded; rolled in the snow, staged snow ball fights and built snowmen; pulled each other in wagons; played in the sandbox; played hop scotch;  played on the swings, slides, climbing bars, merry-go-rounds and the teeter totter; built forts in the woods; looked for fish and other aquatic creatures in the nearby creeks; climbed trees; swam; ran through the sprinkler; played a million kinds of tag; dodge ball; baseball; football; pickle; balanced on home-made stilts; bounced on pogo sticks; scheduled outdoor card games and board games; created elaborate day time and after-dark hide-and-seek games; climbed all over the building equipment vacated by workmen in the late afternoon; constructed superhero scenarios and lost-children dramas; and staged concerts , plays, and re-creations of skits from the Laugh-In show — all of which concluded with an audience-participation and hopelessly awful rendition of America the Beautiful (I owe a debt of gratitude to my own parents and my friends’ parents for  putting up with this last little task). It’s my hope that organizations like Playworks will continue to gain a foothold in school districts across the nation.  Right now they operate in 23 cities, according to the Post article (sadly, Chicago is not among them). But I’m also interested to know how you played as a child.  What was your favorite game or past-time outside?  Why do you think you enjoyed it so much?  Let me know! Sister and Brother Peering at Flowers Now I must get outside myself.  After all, we just changed our clocks and the sun is still up. Sheila Unhinged Photo

Not That Far Away

Sun behind green meadow

Yes, folks, it’s time for another piggy-back song!  I dedicate this to all my Chicago brothers and sisters, for their courage and stamina through this Winter That’s About to End.  I offer it with honor (and apologies) to musician Pharrell Williams.

SUNNY (sung to the tune of “Happy”)

It might seem early, but I learned today – we change our clocks next Saturday

I’m like a mole climbin’ out its hole – so free to catch every last sun ray

Because I’m happy!

Sing along if you feel like a day without an end

Because I’m happy

Sing along if you feel like the sun is your best friend

Because I’m happy

Sing along ‘cuz you know that spring will be here soon

Because I’m happy

Dance about it if you feel like that’s what you wanna do!

Ice and Snow Peaks

Old Man Winter’s claimin’ he ain’t done – braggin’ he’s gonna block out all the sun.

Well, we gonna warn him that his time is up – better back away ‘cuz we’ve had enough.

Because I’m happy

Sing along if you feel like a day without an end 

Because I’m happy

Sing along if you feel like the sun is your best friend

Because I’m happy

Sing along ‘cuz you know that spring will be here soon

Because I’m happy

Dance about it if you feel like that’s what you wanna do!

Sun on Snow 

Bring me down – cold temps can’t bring me down

The days are too long to bring me down

The sun is too high to bring me down

Snow’ll soon be gone – can’t bring me down.

Because I’m happy

Sing along if you feel like a day without an end

Because I’m happy

Sing along if you feel like the sun is your best friend

Because I’m happy

Sing along ‘cuz you know that spring will be here soon

Because I’m happy

Dance about it if you feel like that’s what you wanna do!

Sun behind green meadow