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Achievement Stories and Mentorship in the Classroom

By Cathy G. Knipper

Have you taken the time with the young people in your care to draw out and truly listen to their achievement stories? — Joshua Miller, PhD

My husband and I leaned forward in our seats as our son’s middle-school drama team took the stage at a regional competition. This short skit was a spoof on middle-grade pop culture in a Family Feud-style game show. Our son’s role was the energetic and gregarious game-show host. What played out in the next few minutes alternately surprised and overwhelmed us with joy and laughter as our normally introverted and reserved son transformed before our eyes.

Not only was his performance entertaining, amusing, and professional, but he ad-libbed with expert timing when one of the performers forgot their lines. The school went home with an award for their efforts, and my son took home a special award for his “save-the-day” performance.

Now, 20 years later, he continues to use his gifts to perform in the arts, and he still includes in his close circle of friends the math teacher who mentored a small group of ragtag students into an award-winning band of creatives.

The above narrative is an example of an achievement story born of mentorship. Though told from a parent’s perspective, my son will break into a grin when asked to talk about this experience — his entire body becomes energized in telling about that day. He marks this as one of the pivotal moments of his life. Yet without the encouragement of this teacher, my son may never have discovered his hidden gifts, and the world would be less for it. Do your students have tales such as this? Has anyone taken the time to ask them?

In their book, Unrepeatable, authors Luke Burgis and Joshua Miller, PhD, make the case for achievement stories and mentorship and their role in unlocking the personal calling given to all of us by God. Many refer to this calling as “vocation.” But confusion exists in seeing vocation merely as a state in life (single, married, priest or religious) or the state of one’s work (plumber, lawyer, retail clerk). A personal calling or “vocation” is something that exists from the moment of our creation, a special place in the universe that only we can fill through our God-given gifts.

“A vocation is lived by a person who arrives at an unrepeatable result: a unique relationship with God for all eternity,” writes Burgis.

Teachers, as mentors to our youth, have the unique opportunity of calling forth those gifts — both in and out of the classroom. One of the primary ways to do this is through achievement stories.

Achievement stories are activities from any time and place in life, but it must be something that gives a deep sense of satisfaction and joy, something the storyteller feels they did well. Achievement stories are active and often serve others. They do not have to have a success measurement, such as an award or ranking, but that can be a component. Put simply, achievement stories showcase the best of our God-given gifts.

One of the universal gifts of childhood is, of course, the ability to discover and explore. In doing so, children cultivate creativity and a sense of wonder that is becoming increasingly rare in our world. Burgis uses the example of Wilson Bentley, a boy who is immersed in a sense of wonder. Bentley’s life is told in the 1999 Caldecott Medal-winning book Snowflake Bentley by Jaqueline Briggs Martin. Bentley is captivated by the beauty and mystery of nature. The study of snow and snowflakes became his passion and eventually his very life. He reveled in the beauty of each snowflake and recognized its unrepeatable miracle. With the support and mentorship of his parents, he developed the first method of taking pictures of snowflakes in the late 19th century. His photographic work remains today as the standard on which other methods are based. Throughout his life, his passion for snowflakes never faded, and he shared his work freely, glorifying in God’s unrepeatable gifts.

Within the classroom, especially in the elementary grades, you may find the student who can’t sit still, the one who devours books as if they were on a mission, or the child who, like Wilson Bentley, can’t stop talking about an interest or hobby to the point of distraction. While the immediate reaction may be to redirect these energies to promote order in the classroom, they may be the golden opportunity to discover what motivates students toward using their gifts.

A performance of CATS in Roma Musical Theatre in Warsaw. Gillian Lynne originally choreographed this musical. Image credit:

Burgis also writes about Gillian Lynne, a world-renowned, award-winning choreographer whose most famous works include CATS and Phantom of the Opera. Her mother took her to a doctor after the school complained of her constant movement and lack of focus. Her teachers had suggested that she be placed in a special school for those with learning disabilities. Her doctor quickly diagnosed the problem and recommended a special school. Gillian’s “problem” was that she was a dancer. She needed to be enrolled in dance school — and the rest, as they say, is history.

Three types of questioning can be used to learn about someone and potentially draw out achievement stories: closed, leading, and open-ended questions. Miller advocates open-ended questioning as the primary focus for growth and empathetic listening. Closed questions primarily involve “yes” or “no” answers. They provide basic information but do little to advance open dialogue.

Leading questions are framed by the questioner to elicit a desired response: “Wouldn’t you prefer to use more colors in your paintings?” Leading questions are not advocated in a mentorship relationship. Open-ended questions provide the opportunity for deep conversation and personal growth. “What was the most satisfying thing about this activity for you?” invites the student to share and reflect.

When students are helped to draw out and see the patterns of motivation, talent, and design in their stories, they are better able to follow the path of their divine purpose. This process evolves over time, with trial and error and guidance. A wise and loving mentor drawing out a joy-filled story of another is the first step in this lifelong process.

Achievement stories lend themselves well to language-arts assignments at various ages. Younger children can be encouraged to share the things they do best and bring them joy during “show-and-tell” and circle time. Storytime can promote open-ended questions. “Why do you think she wanted to do that?” “How do you think he felt when he solved the mystery?”

Middle-grade students can be encouraged to act out their achievement stories in skits or oral presentations. Journaling and artwork can also facilitate the recording of these thoughts and experiences. Older students can participate in one-on-one listening exercises where students switch roles in telling and reflecting on achievement stories. This exercise leads to moments of “mutual empathy,” writes Miller, where the “room is typically animated with a buzz of joyful engagement and smiling faces.”

Students can take this one-on-one exercise home and ask for the achievement stories of their parents, siblings, and extended family. They may learn why their mother is a teacher or why the neighbors always seek out their father for advice and counsel. Imagine a family dinner where everyone is reveling in the joy of a forgotten, cherished memory that helped form them into the people they are today.

Mentorship is a responsibility not to be taken lightly, and not every student can or should be mentored by every teacher, but when the opportunity presents itself, the mentor can be prepared. A loving, caring, and attentive mentor has the unique ability to listen empathetically to students, helping them to recognize and use their gifts.

[Our children] know what we’ve forgotten: God created each of them with a unique, unrepeatable design, and he saw that it was good. It’s up to us to help them discover, embrace and live it to the full so that they may achieve the end for which they were made. (Joshua Miller, PhD, in Unrepeatable)

Cathy G. Knipper is a Catholic wife and mother. She is a former journalist turned freelance book publicist. She also writes for Catholic Stand.

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