I was asked to do this speaking gig at the high school in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. It was a beautiful sunny winter day as the principal introduced me to a bunch of yawning students who were only pleased they were not stuck in their normal morning classes. The principal told them that I had been brought in to talk about how to be a better student and get good grades. The groans were audible as the drowsy students clapped politely.
I began by saying, “Look if you are just interested in getting straight A’s and not learning anything, the fastest way to do that is to cheat and not get caught.”
I heard a student actually shout, “Yes!”
I could see the principal shift in his chair. I said, “Look it’s not that hard to get top grades in any class. Just cheat, without anyone catching you, and hope that the information in that class is not something that you will need later in life.” They were now silent and ready to listen. I asked them to imagine that later that day the one person they love most in their life is in a head-on car wreck and has to go to the emergency room. She or he is about to die unless a doctor can help her or him. I asked the students to consider this question: Who do you want working on the person you most love when that person is about to die? Do you want the doctor who cheated her way through medical school, or do you want the one who actually learned the stuff so she can help this person you love… live?
But then I told the students, “Look I’m really not that interested in talking with you about school and how to become a better student. I’d like to talk about snowboarding.” The group erupted. Jackson boasts some of the finest ski resorts in the world, and I knew that a large number of these students grew up on those slopes. I continued with them, “Here’s the deal, I’m actually very interested in having someone here teach me how to snowboard. I have never done it, but I’ve watched my son, Mikey do it, and it looks like great fun and I’m ready to pay someone out there $10,000 for one day if she or he will coach me up.”
The hands of hundreds of students shot up; no one was yawning anymore. I was talking about a topic that, for most of them, was in their blood. But I told them that to make this arrangement, there were one or two conditions before I would pay that kind of money. They were ready to hear the conditions. I said, “First whoever is going to coach me needs to understand that I am a competitor, and so that means that I don’t want to be just average. I have seen that guy with the cool hair that keeps winning at the X-games, (someone shouted White’s name) and I want to be as good as him by the end of the first day of coaching. Oh yeah, and the other thing is I don’t want to fall down when you are teaching me. I hate pain, so I want you to teach me how to snowboard and I can’t ever fall down.”
Gradually, a realization settled across the beautiful auditorium. Without my having to say it, these bright students begin to understand that I was there to talk about learning, the challenges and the joys. I told them what I now tell you. I have been teaching students for over 25 years, and sharing with them these ideas about learning and studying. The best way I know how to do that is through word pictures like the one I just shared with you.
Here’s another word picture that I used once with a group of young men who were in prison, but they were still expected to go to school every day. Most of these guys had learned to hate school from an early age, and so they saw it as cruel and unusual punishment that while they were behind bars they would have to actually keep doing the ‘school thing’. I was brought in to see if I could make a difference in their attitudes about studying. The students were skeptical, so I started with this word picture.
I asked them to imagine that all of a sudden I decided to just run right into one of the rough red brick walls that were surrounding us. Imagine in your mind’s eye this sight. I hit the wall and collapse to the floor with a groan. But now I look at the brick wall as I would my enemy and I jump up and I back up a few more steps so I can take a good running start at the wall and I run as hard as I can right into the red brick wall again. Only this time, as I’m picking myself up off the floor, blood has started to flow from my broken nose, and my right shoulder is clearly dislocated from the force of my hitting the wall so hard. But I refuse to give up, and so I pick myself up and start screaming the “F word” at the wall and I back up even farther as I get ready to take one last run into the wall.
Stupid right. The guys I was sharing this word picture with were laughing right up to the moment I said, “It seems to me that this is what one or two of us in this room have been doing for the past few years of our life.” Now they weren’t laughing. I suggested that I wanted to be the guy who introduced them to a ‘new’ concept called… a door.
Every new school year, when I get my new batch of freshmen students, I choose one of them… usually a boy who has already shown he wants to be the class clown. I ask the boy to follow me into the hall, and all the other students tease him that it didn’t take long to get kicked out of Dr. McGee’s class. I re-enter the room without the young man, let’s just call him Joe. They want to know where Joe is and I say to them, “Joe’s not in trouble; he’s doing a special job for me. He’s standing out in the hall, right outside the door, and he has a large water gun in his hands. You know the kind that you fill with cold water and then pump up so you can shoot lots of water right into someone’s face. I’ve told him that here in a few minutes I’m going to let each of you leave school early for the rest of the day. But here’s the deal. I’ve told Joe that if you exit my classroom and go left he’s going to shoot that big water gun right into your face, and drench you. But if you elect to go right then Joe will not shoot his water gun but let you leave school early. So… who wants to go first?”
Now most students don’t want a shot of cold water to the face… especially if they are unprepared for it. But think about this word picture for a second. Growing up, we have had lots of people who told us, “Go right, don’t go left… if you go left… if you make a bad choice, terrible things and lots of bad pain could happen to you.” And we have often ignored that advice and gone left anyway, and got the shot of cold water right in the face.
Notice something very interesting about my water gun in the face word picture. I have never taught a student who really wanted Joe to hit her or him in the face with the water gun. But the key is, the student has to believe that what old man McGee is telling her or him is true. You have to be willing to trust me when I say that Joe is outside that door with his water gun… go right… don’t go left.
You’ve probably figured out that this is going to be a different kind of book from the ones you read before. If you want to listen to me, if you want to believe me, then I can actually show you the door so you don’t have to keep running into the wall. And when I do show you the door I might have some advice to give you as well… like… “Don’t go left… go right.” You don’t have to listen to that advice.
Do you remember that great story from Greek mythology about the father named Daedalus? He got stuck in prison with his son Icarus and so the inventor father made wings with wax on them so they could escape. Icarus was told by Daedalus to not fly too close to the sun or the heat would melt the wax from the wings and down into the ocean he would fall, killing him. But Icarus was too much like one or two students I have taught over the years… maybe a little like you as well. He was so focused on flying that he didn’t have time to hear the advice, and so he did fly, and it was great… right up to the point when he started falling.
Let’s be honest, we have all had a Daedalus in our life that told us to listen… who suggested there is a better way to get into the hall than trying to run through the red brick wall. Who knows, maybe one of those people in your life has actually suggested you read this book. But the amazing thing about your life is that it really is your life, and until you decide to believe me, and actually listen, you will keep running into that nasty brick wall.
But maybe… just maybe… this time will be different. I want to help you learn how you learn, so you can do well in school, get good grades (without cheating), and get into a university or college so you can prepare for the rest of your life. I tell my high school students that they have 4 years to get ready for 40 years. Think about that. You have to spend at least 40 years of your life doing some kind of job… some kind of work. The last time I checked, no one is going to pay you money to sit at home and play video games for the rest of your life. Sorry.
Let me ask you a personal question. How many 40 year old people do you know who wake up each morning and complain about the crappy job they have to go to? Do you have even one adult in your life who wakes up every morning excited about his or her job? If you do, then that person is a great gift in your life. But what about you? You do realize that you are almost halfway to 40. What kind of person will YOU be at 40? When some high school kid looks at you someday, what kind of person will he or she see? Will you be a man or woman of great joy and passion, who loves to wake up each morning and head off to work? Or will you be some grumpy adult who kids pray they never end up like?
The answer to that question starts right now. Learning how to “deal” with school is learning how to deal with work later in life. I want to help you learn how to make school less work and more fun. But remember what I was saying to those students in Jackson: Snowboarding IS fun, but to learn how to do it takes time and focus… and once you actually learn how to do it… THEN it’s fun.
Join me for a few chapters of suggestions. To be a better student you need to know four simple things:
1. First you need to know what learning is.
2. Second you need to know how to do what we will call active reading or annotation.
3. Third you need to know how to write using an approach we will call Jam Writing that frees up the creator voice to work, while the editor voice waits to do her or his job later.
4. Finally you must learn how to get organized using a master schedule.
Can I share one last word picture with you?
In high school I played for this great basketball coach. But he was a serious hardcore. If you ever had a coach like this maybe you know what I’m talking about. He would not allow even one scrap of tape or paper to fall on “his” locker-room floor. We couldn’t stick anything up on the walls. There was one sign and it hung over the door that we went through to step onto the gym floor. During halftime when coach was ripping us (this seemed to happen most halftimes) I would find myself looking at that sign. Here’s what the words said:
SOMEWHERE… HE IS OUT THERE TRAINING… WHILE I AM NOT,
AND WHEN WE MEET… HE WILL WIN!
Wow. Well there it is. Somewhere she is out there learning how to read while you are not, and when the ACTs happen, she will have the better score and get the scholarship instead of you. Somewhere he is out there learning how to write better, while you aren’t, and he might write the better paper in college.
Look… I know that this book and these ideas are not for everyone. In fact some of what I’ve said already might have turned you off and you don’t want to keep reading. I get it, and that’s fine. Maybe someone else will have to be your Daedalus. But how about this suggestion: Just read one chapter and see if anything I have to say can help you figure out why you are in school in the first place. What do you have to lose?
I challenge you to spend a few more minutes with me and let’s see if, together, we can learn how to fly.