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Topic: inspiring stories

Math Mindset Lessons from the movie “Moneyball”

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

Moneyball — it’s a movie about baseball. And statistics. And underdogs succeeding against “impossible odds” – wait – make that, underdogs succeeding by stacking the odds in their favor in ways no one else had thought of before.

But Moneyball is also a movie about the battle between two mindsets: the mindset of the old-school baseball managers, who recruit and hire players based on “talent”, and new-school baseball managers, Billy Beane and Peter Brand, who hire and develop players based on their potential and overlooked, proven ability.

I see Beane and Brand’s approach as an awesome example of “growth mindset” – the belief – which is true – that human ability and intelligence is something that you develop with effort over time, instead of something that you’re born with a certain amount of which you just demonstrate throughout your life.

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Topic: inspiring stories

Thank goodness this young lady wasn’t institutionalized

Friday, January 14th, 2011

Temple Grandin—a young autistic woman who grew up during a time when autism was not well understood—did not speak until she was four, and her parents were told that their only choice was to institutionalize her for life. Who at that time would have imagined she would grow up to become a college professor and an internationally renowned expert on animal behavior?

The recent movie “Temple Grandin,” is an incredible portrayal of her life story. First: awesome performances by Claire Danes (as Temple Grandin) and supporting cast members. Second: gorgeous cinematography intersperses flashes of how Grandin experiences the world around her—bird’s-eye views with superimposed hand-drawn diagrams, montages of Grandin mentally riffling through a lifetime of images stored in her photographic memory—giving the viewer a chance to see how Grandin perceives the world.

I was extremely inspired by the protagonist, who blazes her own trail learning and doing what she really wants, and leaves her stamp on the world in the face of enormous obstacles.

But I was just as moved by everyone else who supported and encouraged her. Temple’s mother, Eustacia Cutler (played by Julia Ormond), teaches her to speak and read even though she had no support from the medical community and was told that Temple’s case was hopeless.

Temple’s Aunt Anne (played by Catherine O’Hara) supports Temple’s love of animals early on and encourages Temple’s inventions, including a controversial “squeeze machine” Temple creates to give her the calming experience of being hugged without the scary experience of physical human contact.

And there’s Professor Carlock, Temple’s science teacher at boarding school (played by David Strathairn), who sees that Temple thinks in pictures and has an incredible visual mind. Where everyone else sees Temple’s differences as a liability, he realizes she has the ability to perceive what other people can’t see. He encourages her, challenges her, and stands up for her when others are indifferent or irritated.

And he listens when Temple tells him that she wants to study cows in college. Though Grandin is autistic and has difficulty understanding human emotions, she is able to understand animal emotions and behavior unlike anyone else around her. During the movie, you can really feel the animals’ individual personalities when Temple interacts with them—in a way I’ve never seen before in film.

Temple ends up designing spaces for cows based on what cows like and what makes them feel safe. Her ideas revolutionize the cattle industry.

(I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about this aspect of the film, but Temple makes it very clear that her mission is to treat cows humanely and with respect. You never actually see a cow getting butchered, and the only times an animal gets hurt in the movie is when someone ignores Temple’s instructions. [Also, the credits reassure us that no animals actually were hurt in the making of the film.])

My experience working with autistic students is extremely small, but I spend a lot of time with kids who see the world differently than their teachers and peers. Even if their perceptions aren’t as radically different as Temple’s, my job is to encourage these kids and stand up for them when no one else will.

I’ve never seen a mainstream movie deal so explicitly with what it’s like to learn differently, what it’s like to stand up for someone whose mind is different, or what it’s like to see a gift where everyone else sees a liability. I am grateful for this movie.

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Topic: inspiring stories

Self-Taught Heroes: William Kamkwamba, the boy who harnessed the wind

Thursday, May 6th, 2010

Community facing a protracted, draught-induced famine? Family struggling to subsist on one meal a day? Forced to drop out of school because your parents can’t afford the $80/year school fees?

Build a windmill.

That’s what William Kamkwamba did at the age of fourteen.


After surviving a five-month famine, Kamkwamba was determined to find a solution. Inspired by a picture on the cover of a library book, Kamkwamba built a windmill out of trash and scrap metal–even though he had barely any resources, his community ridiculed him as a crazy man, and there wasn’t even a word for “windmill” in his language. His windmill brought electricity to his village and powered an electric pump, allowing his family to consistently irrigate their fields and squeeze and extra growing season—and an extra harvest—in every year.

What makes Kamkwamba’s story so exciting is how he figured out his windmill totally by himself. But I wish we all learned in school how to make sustainable energy sources out of trash!

On the other hand, I wonder if Kamkwamba would have built his incredible windmill if he hadn’t had to drop out of school. It seems like that period of “empty time” really gave him space and drive to explore his dream.

That said, I am thrilled that Kamkwamba is now getting an awesome education at the African Leadership Academy, a pan-African high school in Johannesburg.

You can read all about Kamkwamba’s truly awesome triumph of persistence, determination, and self-education in his book, The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind.

Also, Kamkawamba has a great sense of humor that doesn’t always come across on the printed page. You can get a little taste of how funny he is in this clip where Jon Stewart interviewed him on the Daily Show.

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Topic: inspiring stories

Self-Taught Hero: Pearl Fryar

Sunday, April 25th, 2010

A Man Named Pearl is one of the most inspiring documentaries I’ve seen in a long time. The son of a sharecropper, Pearl Fryar wasn’t able to buy a home in his small town’s white neighborhood because prejudiced neighbors believed he, as a black man, “wouldn’t keep up his yard.”

In 1984, Pearl decided he wanted to try to win the “Yard of the Month” award. With no experience, no training, and using plants that had been thrown in the garbage, Pearl taught himself topiary sculpture and created a spectacular, whimsical, and completely original three-and-a-half-acre garden in Bishopsville, South Carolina. Take that, Edward Scissorhands!

Since he began his garden in 1984, Pearl has become a leader in his own community and recognized throughout the international art world for his unique and compelling vision. Now in his late 60s, Pearl continues to maintain his elaborate plant sculptures and welcomes visitors from his garden from around the world.

I’m really interested in self-directed learning, and Pearl Fryar has got to be the ultimate example–teaching himself a brand-new skill to execute a huge solo project! As a tutor, I’m really trying to teach my kids how to direct and customize their own learning when I’m not around. Ultimately I hope this helps them to find their passions and pursue and create what they really want. Pearl Fryar’s example of self-directed learning is extremely inspiring to me.

Pearl also spoke passionately about encouraging kids, especially the ones who might not be doing so well in school. “If you tell a kid by third grade that they’re not going to achieve at a certain level—I think that’s terrible.” Pearl lives the message of, “There’s always gonna be obstacles. The thing is you don’t let these obstacles determine where you go.”

One of the things he said that really struck me was, “Horticulture people come to my garden and say, ‘You shouldn’t be able to do that.’ And I’d say, “I didn’t know that.” I love it when people come at something from a different angle and find new solutions!

As an artist, I was also really inspired to hear Pearl talk about why he started his garden—not just to express himself, but also “to inspire others to find their creativity to work hard at it.” His advice to others? “Be patient and work hard until you figure it out.” And also, “you can’t be too big.” An amazing example of the growth mindset at work!

Pearl’s own website is here with directions on how to visit (“You just have to come visit me!”) There’s a nice little Q & A with Pearl on amazon. And the DVD of A Man Named Pearl is available on Netflix. I hope someday I can meet this inspiring artist in person!

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Topic: inspiring stories

Ana Reynales earns her BA at age 82!!!!!

Tuesday, December 1st, 2009

At the age of 82, Columbian native Ana Reynales earned her bachelor’s degree! When she arrived in the US at the age of 60, she started studying English right away at Northern Virginia Community College, and “earned multiple associates degrees in applied sciences before enrolling at Mason.”

Now that she has her bachelor’s, Reynales’s goal is to become a Spanish teacher at the university level, and says, “I plan to continue studying for as long as I can.” She wants to help others to learn English or Spanish, particularly focusing on “assisting illiterate adults to learn to read and write, and eventually help them to get back into school.”

“The secret is to start everything at the most basic level, learning the main principles before moving on,” Reynales says. “I used to get so frustrated with my studies before I learned to start at the beginning. I had to learn patience before I could learn anything else.”

What an awesome example of “beginner’s mind”!!! What an inspiring story!!! I love what Ms. Reynales has to say about going back to basics. I feel that a big part of my job as a tutor is finding where the missing links are and helping students to fill it in. It seems that this inspiring lady has learned to do that completely by herself—and look at what that has enabled her to do!

I know I’ve wasted so much time by trying to skip ahead and being frustrated with myself for not moving at the same pace as others. But I do believe that if you’re willing to start wherever you actually are, wherever you need to begin, so many more paths are open to you.

Thanks to my brother, who forwarded this article to me!! I am super proud of him for also graduating this spring from George Mason with his Masters in Public Policy, and for being selected to be included in this article because of his awesome accomplishments!!!

(I learned about this story via the George Mason Gazette, Oldest Grad of 2009 Earns Foreign Languages Degree at 82 [by Dave Andrews]).

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Topic: inspiring stories

Solo sailor inspiration!

Thursday, October 29th, 2009

From my favorite magazine, The Week:

Youngest sailor completes solo journey around the world

Zac Sunderland has become the youngest sailor ever to circumnavigate the globe alone. Only 16½ when he set forth from Marina del Rey, Calif., in June 2008 aboard a 36-foot sloop, he returned last week after 13 months to become the first person ever to complete the solo journey before his 18th birthday. “I think society puts young people in a box—people 15, 16, 17—and does not expect them to do much but go to high school and play football and stuff like that,” Sunderland said. “This just shows they can do a lot more with some strong ambition and desire.”

I found this so inspiring, especially Sunderland’s quote at the end. And part of the reason Sunderland was able to take his journey is that he’d already completed all of his advanced math classes! 😉

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