Lessons from My Pool Turtle


Photo by Tim Nicholson; SCUBA Travel

What does it say about you when you can’t catch a turtle?  I’ve been wondering this the entire month of June. When we returned from our beach vacation at the beginning of the month, we discovered a new houseguest. This not-so-small creature has the biggest room at our place – our pool. We have an insanely big, key-shaped pool. It’s not like a housekey; it’s shaped more like one of those big, fat baby teething keys. So, the turtle picked a giant place to live, as pools go. We immediately tried to get him out with a net – no luck. He got away. It didn’t help that the pool was as clear as rootbeer. Now that we’ve dumped enough chemicals in the pool to blow up Childersburg, you’d think we could get him now that we can actually see him.  Alas, no. He seems to be home and I feel like the intruder! We keep pretending it’s not gross and that we’ll be able to get him out tomorrow.  Of course, my two boys think it’s cool. My youngest son is dying for a new dog, but seems to think the turtle will do in its stead, for now.

So, have I learned anything from my pool turtle? Maybe. Some problems are more complex than they seem. I’ve dedicated enormous amounts of time in my school district to helping teachers discover the imperative for a 21st century skills focus in education. While tremendous progress is being made (in fact, so much so that I almost feel guilty for saying this), so many teachers are like me trying to catch the turtle. They don’t really want it, don’t know how to “get” it, and not so creative in trying to really capture the concept. Just like me with the turtle, they don’t call for help. They have grown used to things and the accept how things are – even if instructional strategies are out of place and unsuccessful.

Turtles Will Be Turtles

Southerners really understand turtles. They are slow, methodical, loyal, and tough. It’s not always so obvious to others, but they are quite intelligent as well. Most southerners aren’t so concerned that others don’t “get” them. The wisdom I find in many of my colleagues is so practical and humane. They place so much more value and trust in people, not systems and institutions. They don’t really care to argue about esoteric matters.  Philosophy is a cereal box religion that make little sense to study. This is why it’s so hard to get them to act on new understanding about what students need in the classroom. It’s not just the old idea “that what worked for me…”  It’s much deeper. They just don’t care to think about it. People from other places might call my colleagues simple minded, but I don’t. It’s just not their style to think that way. So, how do I offer myself as a bridge? I have to do it their way. I have to speak about our needs in education from the southern perspective. We care so much more about raising “good younguns” than worrying about the outsourcing of opportunities for our youth in India. We want good jobs and kind people to run businesses in our communities more than we need to be on the cutting edge of new technologies, business, and politics. Rarely does the average southerner see the connection between what we want and what we need. Why? A thousand reasons. Our history, lack of leadership, our weather (yes, I have a theory on that), the sense of empowerment missing from our core set of beliefs about life. I can’t change all of that. In fact, I can’t change any of that. But I can engage others in a discussion of who we are, what we need, and how we can get it. I have to find a place in conversation to talk about the need for more collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity in our instruction. I need to be strategic with what I choose to discuss, understanding what people naturally care about and following that with new perspective and insight. My grandfather always used to say, “Jennifer, nobody cares about your sh** but you.”  Wise man. Even if it would work, why would I force my views on someone else? To work together toward common goals, we must discover for ourselves the purpose for our work. Thus, I have to do the work it will take to inspire others to think about the education of our children from new perspectives. I have to take the time to see where they are (difficult when they might be floating in murky water) and create a clear a path to them. Then I must encourage them to lift themselves out of the water. This is something I failed to do with my turtle. Lesson learned.

Note:  I’m planning to do a series of book studies next school year to push thinking about why 21st century skills should be a top priority in our schools.  Do you have suggestions?  Please post.  Thanks!

8 thoughts on “Lessons from My Pool Turtle

  1. Cathy Gassenheimer says:

    Jennifer, Having trouble with your spam word (can’t tell whether one character is an e or a c), so this is the last time I’ll try to post something!

    Thanks for your insightful post. Like the turtle, we all plug along at our own pace and our own speed. But, like you said, students need so much more if they are to be successful in this rapidly changing world.

    So, keep persisting and keep dialoging. Peter Block reminds us that change is hard and the first step is to always invite people into conversations . . . again and again and again, if necessary!


  2. Ann Oro says:

    Two books that I have read and continue to learn from and think about are Made to Stick and Switch – both by Dan and Chip Heath. They have great stories that capture how to make an idea you are presenting “stick” and how to get people to change when change is hard. Thanks for the great post. I liked the turtle story, too.


  3. Becky Robinson says:

    Jennifer, I liked the turtle story. I have been helping my daughter who is in school at Univ. of AL. She has had several occasions where she had to write metaphorically. For example:
    This week, as a teacher of reading, I am a contractor who builds a bridge. I must know the plan and the area to decide where to put in all of the steel and planks. I cannot just throw out materials and expect the bridge to build itself. I must know a little of the world that the bridge connects so I can have the confidence that the bridge will be sturdy. I may face obstacles during construction, and become discouraged if there are delays and I have to do some work over. I must work hard and try different strategies when building the bridge so that it can take the right shape. When finished, the bridge should forever or at least 100 years.
    Reading is the bridge that I am building with my students. Books, letter cards, and a computer are my materials, but I must follow the plan for each student. There may be times when certain strategies do not work with certain students. I must stay in touch with what each student needs so that the student and I can build the necessary reading skills that will be necessary for future success in today’s world.

    I thought you might like the metaphor. I am interested in your book study. Just a thought—-what about the PBL recommended book Active Engagement Strategies that Tristan recommended last week. I know Winterboro has already used it, but we could do it system wide and open up to those of us interested.
    I have always wanted to participate in a system-wide book study. We had one during the Cornerstone years. We used to meet at different houses. Now we could just blog. It might be fun to meet every now and then. After reading your blog, I believe you are the person to lead it. I think you have vision similar to what Janet Cumbee had or has.


  4. Jennifer Barnett says:

    Thank you Cathy, Ann, and Becky for your thoughts, feedback, and suggestions. I am collecting many book ideas (as well as ideas for how and where to meet, Becky) from y’all and others from my PLN. I’m already excited about the possibilities of what deeper study and conversation about strategic instruction and authentic learning can do for the teachers with whom I work. I will definitely post about the progress of our studies as they unfold.

    Thank you again for sharing!


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