Grit: imagine that!


Grit is the new buzzword in education circles --- without this "ability to demonstrate effort and passion over time," academic success is unlikely. University of Pennsylvania Psychologist Angela Duckworth has studied high-achieving students only to find that they "pursue goals that are neither too easy nor too hard, [while] individuals high in grit deliberately set...extremely long-term objectives and do not swerve from them – even in the absence of positive feedback."

In sports, we often use mental imagery to prepare for competition or when an athlete is injured – practicing in your imagination fires neural networks along muscle paths that are used in an actual physical activity. Such vivid imagery stimulates activity in the brain's frontal lobe, which controls higher cognitive processes, perception, and motor control. Building an ability to visualize a performance in your imagination creates success in your mind's eye.

What is most interesting, however, is that imagination and perception "occur along parallel neural pathways and are constantly competing for attention," says Susie Neilson in How to Survive Solitary Confinement. "The more there is to perceive, the less intense our mental imagery will be." More movies, video games, and social distractions in students' lives impair their abilities to imagine and to focus. Because creativity requires alone time and silence, all imagination is not the same.

Our wandering minds (daydreaming in class; diversionary tactics during homework time) give us a chance to unwind. However, a controlled imagination initiates creativity and increases the ability to overcome mental obstacles. Impaired control might lead to, as Neilson reports, "psychological disorders like substance dependence and attention deficit disorder." Random thoughts do not result in productive creativity.

Forming this focused, "controlled" imagination is the goal of truly academic programs. Babies have the innate ability to learn to walk without instruction and training, and persist every time they fall down. With guidance, that natural initiative can be cultivated even as students begin to face middle and high school assignments. Art, music, and drama classes assist creative imagination, which is enhanced by work done in classic academic disciplines.

The intertwined, related curriculum that North Fork School teachers coach students through each year is laser-focused on creating this elusive skill-set called "grit" in all students. Starting early, middle school students find that the incremental building of pieces toward longer and more all-encompassing assignments enhances their creative focus. Such gradual building of skills increases imagination, problem-solving, and academic ability – regardless of innate intelligence. This creative ability, practiced over the long term, is grit – and the college and career successes of those students who have attended The North Fork School for more than five consecutive years absolutely attests to that.

by Marie Furnary

Enter college with successful strategies

Each year, freshmen arrive on college campuses with visions of their future success dictating every move. While it may feel safe, especially in this economy, to focus on a career path (pre-med, pre-law, and business comprise most entering students’ planned majors), staying open to new possibilities may land you on an academic path that ultimately leads to a more fulfilling life, and to greater economic success.

The following three strategies can open career paths that you never dreamed of, and will help craft your college years into the defining life experience that they are meant to be:

  • Pick classes that excite you. This may seem obvious, but many serious students overload their academic plans with pre-graduate school or career "requirements." Even if you have a pre-med focus, sign up for that language term abroad. Take an art or drama class alongside organic chemistry. Fulfill an English requirement with a course in creative writing. You want to look forward to attending class each day. If you love your course load, you will perform well, receive a higher GPA, and be more interesting to future employers.
  • Push the edges of your limits (academic & extracurricular). While it is tempting to fill your course card with subjects in which you already excel, trying a new language or challenging yourself with a computer programming or webpage design class can open your mind to flashes of a whole new life. Liberal arts colleges understand that an inter-related curriculum of ideas creates successful learners, and require their students to balance course loads with selections from the humanities, the social sciences, the arts, and the sciences. Trying classes and extracurricular activities that seem intimidating -- but that interest you – is a sure-fire way to expand your options and your fun.
  • Think of college as expanding your life, not just your economic potential. My daughter, who graduated from college with a technology consulting job in hand, acquired the skills that made her resume attractive to employers not through her major (psychology), but through her work as publisher of the college newspaper. By choosing a major that allowed her to explore her interest in people, and by pushing her limits with a few years in the business department of the independent campus newspaper, she created a college life that was interesting, challenging, and fulfilling. Employers love applicants who challenge themselves and who work outside of their self-created comfort zones.

Explore one new possibility (a friend, an activity, an event, a lecture) every week; be open to unplanned opportunities. Companies look for smart, well-rounded liberal arts candidates because they can master a wide variety of new topics in a short period of time, just as they had to do in college. College is not simply a path to your future wonderful life; it is your wonderful life right now. The more you explore its possibilities, the greater its long-term return will be.

first published by Marie Furnary
 7/23/12 on

Homework: no lyrics allowed!

Parents often ask whether their children may listen to music while doing homework. Rationalizations abound in the preface to such inquiries, such as, “It’s only classical music,” and “Music relaxes him so he can concentrate.” While there is a case for listening to classical music, especially when doing Math, teenagers are often distracted by music, especially when listening to music with lyrics they know.

Try having a conversation on this topic with your child while you are writing a letter or email to a business contact. Can you concentrate on both conversations at once? Do you find that you must pause during one or the other conversation to compose your thoughts and make your best case? In a conversation about his new book, You Are Here, on National Public Radio's Talk of the Nation, author Colin Ellard ascribed one cause of becoming “lost” to our senses' interfering with one another. Ellard says:

“…certainly, if we have to deal with too much information at once, then it’s going to make us more likely to leave the here-and-now, to lose contact with what it is that we should be paying attention to and so radios, cell phones, all kinds of electronic devices, when we’re using them as we’re walking or driving from place to place, tend to take us away from the here-and-now and make it more likely that we’ll get lost…”

When a student listens to music with lyrics that he knows, there is no way for him to simply concentrate on what he is writing. The lyrics create an underlying “conversation” in his brain as he mulls over thoughts for his paper. He becomes less present, unfocused, “lost in space" – not at every moment, but throughout the night. He may turn in an English paper LIKE THIS.

If homework is taking your student a long time every night; if papers are receiving low grades after much effort; if you want to see a large result with a small change: turn off the iPod. Welcome your child back into the moment.

For more info:
Talk of the Nation discussion with Colin Ellard
Neurobiology report: the correlation between music & math
Abstract: Effects of popular & classical music on math test scores
College students discuss listening to music while doing homework


first published by Marie Furnary
 7/08/09 on


Red is angry; green is calm

It was my own daughter, poetic and to the point when discussing her feelings, who pointed this out to me.

“When a teacher writes all over my paper in red pen, I feel like she is angry, like I did everything wrong,” she said in her third-grade voice. “Can’t you use another color, like pink?”

Thus began the first of many years of gel pens -- in all colors except red – editing papers in the hands of student, parent, and teacher editors. And it makes perfect sense – to students who are hyper-aware of indications of approval, red is an angry color. It is passionate, it is flaming, it is mad; and students who write poetry know it.

Correcting in blue or purple or green -- or even black -- opens a discussion on paper. To discuss with a student the strengths and weaknesses of a piece is not to scold or to shame or to criticize. Marking corrections, acknowledging good insights, refining the organization of a thought – these are the hallmarks of good teaching.

If the red pen simply places a grade at the top of the page, with no specific comments, even an “A” lacks value. It is in the detailed discussion, in the give-and-take between teacher and student and the ultimately-revised paper, that learning happens. Students who receive respectful, specific advice from teachers and peers learn to critique their own work. They learn to analyze good writing, to correct flaws in an argument, to question in a positive, helpful manner. And they feel heard.

When a class listens to and comments on a piece in progress, each member of that group begins to feel as though he is important. His comments count; the author is grateful (or not); the creative process is shared. The quality of the critique lies in specific details that are appreciated or questioned.

Powerful as it seems, the red pen lacks authority; it steals power from the author, and appears all-knowing. Students must retain ownership of their work to gain self-esteem; giving them the choice of changes that are offered in peaceful green or humorous orange or delicate pink makes them laugh and want to try again.

first published by Marie Furnary
 7/23/09 on

Curriculum that creates connections

Successful learners are able to connect new information with what they already know; a school that aligns its curriculum both horizontally (integrating classes over the course of the year) as well as vertically (building on previous learning in successive years) creates excited learners. For instance, theme-based learning in the elementary years entices students to explore all facets of a topic: a few weeks living as Ancient Romans can expand students' knowledge of debating in the Senate, marketing in Roman numerals, engineering aqueducts, and creating military strategies to expand the Empire.

When these students reach their High School years, this role-playing experience remains with them as they read Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, piece together document-based essays for their AP World History exam, or learn the basics of solar engineering in an Environmental Issues class. The experiential knowledge base of their elementary years aligns vertically with this new knowledge, enabling students to create their own connections.

Homework is an essential part of this student ability to create connections without external guidance. Using classroom time for learning and discussing new material, information, writing ideas, and basic skills forces students to come to class having prepared each assignment; students quickly become aware that any lack of preparation on their part holds back the entire class. This approach allows students to feel as if they are part of an intellectual community: each student feels responsible for arriving in class with the ability to contribute to his peers’ learning. Discussions allow students to approach and to examine their own ideas, connections, and conclusions, making kids feel smart. When their contributions are respected, students respect their teachers and their peers.

Homeschoolers have long approached education in an integrated way; in recent years, Idaho public schools have utilized grants to integrate their curriculums vertically in each subject area. Looking at curriculum not as a proprietary commodity, but as a total package of interrelated skills -- subject knowledge, independent exploration, and community engagement -- creates the kind of learning that changes students' lives. While integrating curriculum both horizontally and vertically takes time, cooperation, and effort on the part of teachers within a district, such efforts will give schools the greatest return by creating lifelong learners who are successful in their adult careers.

first published by Marie Furnary
7/03/09 on

Stop bawling into our ears...

“What did you learn in school today?” The very question annoys most students and flusters many parents when they receive the resulting answer: “nothing.” Why is it that we expect there to be something to tell, something “learned” every single day in school that can be distilled into a couple of sentences at the dinner table? What is wrong with just experiencing the day?

Often, school is a petri dish where students absorb ideas, create connections, and exist, as nomadic herders do, simply wandering and watching. Often, things happen that will affect learning months or years down the road – a middle school student writes a free verse poem, struggling to find figurative language that resonates without rhyme; years later, he discovers Walt Whitman in a high school English class and truly understands how that new form -- free verse -- evolved.

In 1580, Michel de  Montaigne wrote:

"Our tutors never stop bawling into our ears, as though they were pouring water into a funnel; and our task is only to repeat what has been told us. I should like the tutor to correct this practice, and right from the start, according to the capacity of the mind he has in hand, to begin putting it through its paces, making it taste things, choose them, and discern them by itself; sometimes clearing the way for [the pupil], sometimes letting him clear his own way. I don’t want [the tutor] to think and talk alone, I want him to listen to his pupil speaking in his turn."

Teachers (and parents) who think for their students, presenting them with information that will be requested later on a test or in an essay, are side-stepping the goal: an engaged mind. Only through offering enticing tidbits, through allowing students to take charge of what is important, what is interesting, what is true for themselves, can learning last.

The question is never just, “what did you learn?”  It is more intricate, involving specifics, and unexplored thoughts. It is, essentially, poetic: “who are you now; how are you different than you were this morning?”

first published by Marie Furnary
7/13/09 on


Hard Statistics

Our last on-site external accreditation review was in February, 2015. The process always includes analyzing the results of stakeholder surveys as well as of statistics such as ISAT and SAT scores to show improvement. As parents think about whether to enroll in NFS classes in the coming year, there are some really amazing trends that everyone should know.

First, although North Fork School students usually already score in the higher percentiles of ISAT scores, AND even though it is difficult to show very much improvement in those upper ranges, our students showed an overall improvement (by class) from Spring 2010 to Spring 2011 of:

+15 to +32 points in Reading;
+9 to +26 points in Language
+16 to +21 points in Math

While is usual to see these kinds of improvements from lower-level students who are just beginning to work with us, having overall class scores come up that much in one year reveals a LOT of learning in the first few months of North Fork classes.

Second, I had a call in 2013 from a Boise parent who had a senior who, as a strong student athlete, was just beginning to receive offers of athletic scholarships from colleges. Unfortunately, her SAT scores were low, and her essay received a “7” (out of 12 possible points). This parent wanted to know if I knew of some way to help her child improve those scores, because the low scores were determining a lower financial aid award, per NCAA rules. I had to tell her that there is no “quick fix” for SAT writing scores. There is really no “quick fix” or “trick” for any SAT or ACT test score – such scores are the result of consistent, long-term effort and practice. That is what we do every day at North Fork. To have scores affect a college financial aid award – even when that award is predicated on athletic achievement – comes as a shock to many students.

Third, a former North Fork parent loves to relate how her son, a 2009 graduate of MDHS and NFS, received a year’s worth of college credit (at $40,000+/year) for AP scores he received as a result of his North Fork School work. Some of the scores translated into credit for more than one entry-level course, allowing him to skip almost all of his freshman requirements, and to begin college as a sophomore. This parent was not only thrilled at the savings NFS allowed her son in his pursuit of a college education, but claims that the North Fork School was the “best money [she] had ever spent” as far as his gaining confidence and ability to work at the college level. He graduated from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in 2014 with a job at Apple, taking his success to the next level.

This kind of accomplishment is common among our graduates; when parents wonder whether they can “afford” North Fork, I would like them to wonder instead, “how can we not afford it now?” Later, as I must tell many parents who come to me in their students’ junior or senior years, when it is finally obvious to them that their children are not going to be ready for college-level work, is often too late.

Too often, parents mull over these issues alone, without facts or statistics or open conversation to guide them or to help them decide what is best for their families. There are many ways to educate a child; we offer one option. We love what we do, and we hope that you choose to be part of the love this year.

Marie Furnary, Head of School