On Learning & Fear & Going Really Fast . . .

Of the many lessons that my mother has definitely taught me, one that I often come back to is that you cannot let fear control your life. Usually this was under the guise of jumping rocks across a river, or peeing in the woods, or swimming far— out deep into the ocean. Perhaps she didn’t mean learning to drive a McLaren on the racetrack, but whatever the reason, I can hear her voice in my head whenever there is a cool opportunity and I am too scared to take the wheel.

As I sank low into the McLaren seat, I could almost feel the fear begin to grip me. I’ve played Forza before; my car never makes it around the first turn without a crash. Yet, I could see my Mom’s face, this was a once in a lifetime opportunity, this was not the time to be a sissy.

Classroom Learning

When you learn to drive a McLaren on a track, the first step is to sit in a classroom and learn about the power behind the car (for me this part was more like instilling the fear of death into me, maybe necessary for the men in the room?— total opposite affect on me). Then we got into cars with a professional driver, he drove and talked his way around the skill he was teaching (3 different guided groups launch/breaking, slalom, autocross, and a guided look at the inside of the car).

It didn’t matter what guided group I was in, I was nervous. I kept thinking ahead to how the driver would eventually be switching seats with me, putting me in the driver’s seat, and expecting me to pull off the very kind of driving that was making me want to pee my pants as a passenger.

In the end, I was too scared to do the launch, something about going 0-80-0 made me want to cry. I sat in the car while the driver did it, and for me, that felt like an accomplishment enough. I did take the wheel in the slalom course and the autocross. Both times the instructors told me to only go as fast as I felt comfortable, and in the beginning that was probably about 25mph; I was not sure any part of me would ever feel comfortable on a racetrack in a helmet. But both times, the instructor coached me, through every turn, every break, and every “I’m scared now” comment I decided to blurt out.

On the track

Truthfully, I’m not sure I broke 100mph on the track when I was driving. But believe me, I learned a ton and as far as overcoming fears goes, I attacked a minefield in my life that day. I loved driving the McLaren, and I wouldn’t trade the day at Monticello for the world.

But this is a teaching blog, and so I have some important things to point out.

    1. Track Driving was a completely new skill for me and may of the people participating in this day. Notice the approach— whole class mini lesson— teacher led guided session— student led guided session — (the next step would have been independent practice, which I would have jumped all over, if I had any energy left). Kudos to McLaren for using educationally sound best teaching practice. The teachers were totally engaged the whole time, their methodology in teaching sound, as well as their enthusiasm/knowledge within their subject matter. I couldn’t have been more impressed.
    2. I was too scared to do the launch. The ride with the driver was accomplishment enough. Sometimes are students are not ready for a new skill, but there is nothing wrong with exposing them, and providing them with the experience as a stepping stone for the day they are ready.
    3. I had a hard time listening to the instructors because I was nervous and felt out of my element in a helmet and a Supercar. How often does this happen to my students? Are they missing what I’m saying because they’re sitting in a desk with a pencil, instead of on a couch with a computer?
    4. My instructor happily repeated the same instructions he had told me on lap one, on lap twelve— and I desperately appreciated needed the confirmation. At that point I was whispering in my head, “break at the second cone, come off slow, turn, accelerate” but knowing that he was saying the same thing aloud gave me the courage to step on the gas . . . even if it was just a little. Do I have the patience to happily repeat instructions to my students twelve times?  How can I get them to tell me what they are thinking in their head? Am I acknowledging my students when they step on the gas a little? Am I continuing to press them to go for another lap?
    5. I was exhausted. From driving. By the end of the day, I was seriously wiped. Poor Evan had to drive home while I lay as still as possible next to him with my eyes shut. This day was hard for me; everything was literally new. Am I watching for when my students need a break? New stuff is hard for everyone.

Now that I have written this, I wonder if my Mom will read this and comment that the lesson she taught me when I was younger, to not let fear control your life, had nothing to do with driving on a track in a McLaren? Ha, don’t worry Ma, I survived!Better Line Up

#McLarenTV

It all started with test prep. I mean, I dread test prep; I value its importance, but I dread test prep. So with persuasive writing test prep, the easiest and maybe one of the most important things I do with my kids is to have them write to a prompt, because really, I don’t give them writing prompts all year, so this practice is important.

Somewhere between test prep and moments of testing anxiety only a teacher can understand, came McLaren.

I know nothing about cars. But, I can definitely pick out a cool car. So what would be cooler than persuading the McLaren MP4-12C to come see us at school? Well, if it actually worked, nothing would be cooler than that. In fact I think it would make test prep authentic, which is really the reason I hate test prep in the first place, the lack of authenticity in the process.

When we started writing our persuasive letters to McLaren and our Principal, I was all about the details— that is providing valid persuasive techniques, putting the thesis statement in the right place, a genuine rebuttal that actually helped the paper. Somewhere in the middle of all of this, I realized their reasoning had persuaded me too, learning about this car was one of the most educational things we could do for them and if I could make it happen, I would try.

Before I knew it, the science teacher was involved doing materials science labs and talking about the strength of a carbon fiber body. Then the kids were building their own rubber band powered racecars, and it was happening, it was actually happening.


Our math teacher brought the whole project to a new level, planning out McLaren math and getting the kids to figure out Drag Speed Coefficients and things I do not understand at all. He was even e-mailing the Chief Engineer over at McLaren England; I mean really. And so what had started as a really painful test prep lesson became a community building, learning experience, across three curricular areas— oh and one really amazing day with The McLaren MP4-12C!

 

 

 

 

During this project, I saw my kids do things that really really really impressed me and tugged at my heartstrings.

  1. They struggled and didn’t give up: Each subject area really raised the bar with this one, we all expected things out of them we were not sure they had the ability to do. We all watched them fail; we all watched them try again, more than once.
  2. The helped each other: Without me suggesting it, without thinking that if they helped one team they might not win a prize, they selflessly shared tips with their core group of friends and people they rarely talked to. They really wanted everyone to succeed.
  3. They smiled: I see them smile everyday, but this project had some really excited smiles from kids who sometimes struggle to find a reason to smile (See screams of joy when Chad turned on the car stereo and played Taylor Swift for them and gasps of awe as Matt opened and shut the car door).

Then again during this project, I saw adults do things that really really really impressed me and tugged at my heartstrings.

  1. Jon, Donna, Jen & I worked together as a team: We each changed lesson plans, we each conducted research above and beyond, we were flexible and supported each other in the way coworkers should.
  2. All the people at McLaren Philadelphia and McLaren helping us and making us feel like family, answering our questions along the way, and being excited for us: They didn’t have to, they weren’t making a profit for this, they valued us when we had nothing we could give them in return.
  3. Chad, Alison, and Matt giving up their day to be with us: They stayed way longer than expected; they brought gifts for the kids; they answered countless questions. They got sunburn!
  4. Evan, typically a star in our classroom, came in to help us build cars, take photos, and make sure I stayed sane at the end of the day.
  5. Gerald Catagnus, our principal, who saw the value in our plan and welcomed McLaren into our school.

A Footnote:

This past summer, I attended Columbia University’s Reading and Writing Project Summer Institute. I remember one class I took with Colleen Cruz, author of Reaching Struggling Writers. Maybe what I remember the most, without looking at my notes, is that if you draw on something kids already think is fun, and then apply writing to it, they’ll be more likely to give you their best work.

Generally speaking, I thought I was pretty good at doing just that. However, it was in this class that I realized I may have been missing some pretty valuable teaching tools. Sports. Video Games. Hunting. Cars. Anything, that I might have previously labeled utterly and totally ummm boring boy?

I made my mind up this summer, that I would open my mind. I would try harder with a topic that my kid’s love, even if the very thought of the topic would be utterly vapid for me.

But in the end, this project, this undertaking, was anything but vapid. In fact it sits high on my teacher shelf of things I loved teaching, loved learning about, and I still can barely believe this all happened to us.

 

**There was a press release for this day, hence the kid pic love I’m totally able to post. If you love style of these photos, email me at rachel@notesfromahappyteacher.org , and I can set you up with our amazing photographer Evan.