The 100th day: Learning's tipping point deep in the school year

The 100th day of school is a tipping point where accretion of grade-level knowledge begins to show; it's a benchmark in leaps of consciousness that teachers celebrate.

Courtesy of Jamie Siever
Caleb Siever, a student at The School in Rose Valley, Pa., wipes off a whiteboard using some elbow grease.

Most elementary schools celebrated the 100th day of school around this time of year. “Bring in 100 of something,” the teachers will say. And the day will be devoted to enumerating all manner of things: pennies, Cheerios, acorns, etc. In my former school, it was the day when Zero the Hero saved the day by restoring the specially decorated 100 cake. You can’t have 100 without Zero.

The day is also a tipping point. It sneaks up on you. Suddenly, the psychic midpoint of the school year has arrived. It has been circling and watching and coming closer and closer and then … it pounces.  Though it may feel like the midpoint, that doesn’t necessarily mean “half over.” Like the proverbial glass that is half full or half empty, it depends on whether you’re filling it up or pouring it out!

At my school we’re still filling up. This apparent defiance of the laws of physics is more than a trick of the mind. Even though the second half of a school year can feel like the Westward slope on which we are hurtling toward June, time passes in unique ways for each time traveler. The external benchmarks describe one kind of time passage, and the second half of a school year is more like two thirds of the year in terms of the learning we can pour in. Better to focus on the upcoming tipping points, to use a popular phrase, which are internal, less predictable, and indicators of more profound growth. The good thing about going downhill isn’t just the speed–it’s the momentum.

Here’s a way of looking at a tipping point. A child enters, say, fifth grade long before they truly become a fifth grader. Fully inhabiting any new grade takes a while. There’s an accretion of fifth graderness required. There are new routines to master, a new teacher and classmates to know, new curriculums and traditions to practice. But those are just the quantifiable parts. A tipping point comes when we move beyond mere format to fully inhabit the new sense of ability, of accomplishment, of our individual capacities and possibilities. It’s tipping from being in fifth grade to being a fifth grader. It has been out there awaiting your arrival.

How do you know you’re at the tipping point? Ask around and answers will abound. “The most obvious way in kindergarten,” writes our teacher, Annie, “is to witness them flying into the classroom in the morning completely independently. Even when they are followed by parents posing as Sherpas, children have hung up their coats, signed in and become engaged in projects and games. They are often followed by adults with wistful expressions, hoping for an extra hug or a goodbye kiss. They might even welcome a modicum of trouble with separation. A token tear or two! A little clinginess to remind them of the good old days when they felt more needed. Parents, apparently, are tipping too! Now their full-fledged kindergarteners own the classroom, anticipate what the day has in store, and can’t wait to get on with it!” Here are the nascent seeds of executive functioning.

Another teacher, Robin, calls the middle of the preschool year “a protein-packed time indeed.” Our youngest students are making “deeper connections and fierce friendships can emerge,” she says. “Children who were playing in solitary or parallel fashion have matured enough and developed enough trust to enter into more collaborative play. The room grows a bit more boisterous, and the children begin to display a wider range of emotion than was evident in the beginning.”

Consider the astounding leap of consciousness embedded in the following preschool accomplishment: “In small group work this week, we introduced the term “vocabulary” and explained it as “words we are learning about,” says teacher Maureen. There’s an epistemological great leap forward here—not just learning words, but learning about words. “The first word added to our vocabulary list was 'describe/describing.' The group defined it as 'to tell things about something or an idea, but not to tell the name of the thing—that would be telling what we call it, not describing it; you need to investigate the thing that you want to describe so you know about it and know what to say.' Another word we have introduced: 'elbow grease', as in, 'You can do it, just give it a little more elbow grease!' This was a spontaneous term used in relation to the pressure needed to erase wipe-off crayon from the white board. It has plenty of other applicable uses.” 

Meanwhile, the focus of recess collaboration down in Fort Town has turned from law enforcement to civil engineering. Bridge Edward and Fort Edward are nearing completion by the first and second grade crews. A mighty span of the impending big muddy eddy is being prepared. All that’s required for a nice water fall is ... water. The forecast looks auspicious.

Perhaps we’re accustomed to thinking of tipping points as large-scale phenomena, the moments when a grand new cultural idea, trend, or behavior suddenly overwhelms the status quo. But a tipping point is about subtleties. There are, in fact, many tipping points in a school year. It can be the ‘Aha!’ moment when the concept of multiplication finally clicks, or when words take flight and a poem’s “deep inner meaning” finally makes exquisite sense. Suddenly you can play C on your recorder, and a whole tune falls into place, or the short vowel sound you hear finally corresponds to the letter you’re seeing in the middle of sight words. Just raising your hand in the morning meeting for the first time is a big moment. But these are tipping points within tipping points, and there is a gradual slope leading up to the actual moment of change. Even "The Tipping Point", Malcolm Gladwell’s book that launched our popular awareness of the concept, must have had a few subsidiary tipping points!

Beware: Tipping points arrive spontaneously and without warning. It’s good to be on the look out. We may be halfway “there,” with a couple more halves to go before June (!), but we make more progress in the time allotted if we celebrate those new recorder notes and vowels and consonant blends (“One good word is worth a thousand pictures”) and reports of nature and birthdays in morning meetings. We can’t always see them coming, or recognize that “we’re there” until much later. But we’re destined to be “more than the sum of our parts” if we take delight in the surprising tips ahead, and savor the momentum they bring. It’ll take a little elbow grease to get to June; more wistful Sherpas and protein-packed play. The sixth graders are working on Greek theater. Places everyone—for Act II.

Todd R. Nelson is Head of School at The School in Rose Valley, Pennsylvania. The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of bloggers. Our guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. 

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