Building Capacity

Thirteen books sit in a stack by the door of my office. They’re none of them very big or thick, and all of them have spaces on the shelves. They’re sitting in this stack by the door because it’s convenient to my yoga mat, where I do Sun Salutation every day.

About a month ago, I decided that I would do 25 push-ups every day. I’m an older guy, with a “tendency toward stoutness”, which is a nice way of saying I’m fat. I can’t do 25 push-ups down to the mat and up again without keeling over. Not possible.

The books are there to help me keep good form as I train my biceps and triceps and pectorals in the motion of a good push-up. After Sun Salutation (which is getting easier, despite my complaining), I pull the stack of books onto the center of the mat and do 25 push-ups. Every time I lower my body, my chest comes to rest on the top of the stack of books.

I’d like to say for the record that I hate it.

At the end of 25 push-ups, I feel like a fat old fool. I’m not doing ‘real’ push-ups, I’m doing baby push-ups. I can only do seven. Or twelve. Or fifteen. Or nine. Or twenty-two, before I stop, wait to catch my breath, and begin again.

But every time I do 25 push-ups on the top book of the pile without stopping — that book comes off the pile, and goes back to its place on the bookshelf.

Doing the push-ups sucks. But I like how my arms are filling out, and becoming less flab and more fab. I like how my mid-day tai chi routine is building up my core muscles around my waist, too.  I like how I started with twenty-five books in the stack, and how the stack now has twelve books in it.

It’s taken me two to four days each to do all 25 push-ups onto the top of the stack without stopping. Every time I do, that book goes back to the shelf, and I’m one paperback spine closer to the floor.

Building capacity is like that.  If I went to the gym, and my trainer said, “do 25 push-ups,”… and I couldn’t… and my trainer yelled at me… I might not go back to the gym again.  Life is too short to be shamed in public on a regular basis.  But doing push-ups daily, at the level I’m comfortable with, using training ‘wheels’ (or books) to grow my capacity — that’s will.  Willpower can’t pick up tons of cargo all at once, and it can’t cause other people to forget their purpose, like a Jedi’s wave of a hand.  But it can help people set an unvarying purpose.

I’ll keep doing push-ups — even though they look girly, even though I need a training aid, even though I can’t do a ‘real’ push-up — until I CAN do a real push-up.  My willpower will bring my capacity into alignment with my desire, one paperback at a time.

I think that’s what’s missing from all the public school ‘reform’ debate: A kid’s capacities are not going to grow all at once, and not all kids grow at the same rate or even start at the same place.  One child’s paper-back stack is taller or shorter than another’s, and some don’t even start with a stack of books under them at all.  Underlying all this, though, is the notion that we the teachers have to show them how to use the training aids — but no one can get up at 5 am to do the push-ups for them.  That’s something they have to decide to do on their own.

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  1. Modeling in history? That’s an intriguing idea. Just the other day, a teacher asked me how I would use modeling in engineering and I wasn’t sure I could. I need to think on this a bit, but I think a modeling in… post or series of posts would lead to some great conversations.

    For instance, do you think the idea of a model even exists in history? In science, it’s this mental construct that has multiple representations (graphical, diagrammatic, mathematical, verbal) to explain and predict the behavior of the world. Even if it’s wrong, it’s still a model (one that we hopefully refine as new evidence presents itself). Given the description I just wrote, I’d be inclined to say that historians develop models to explain events that occurred in the past and that these are based on evidence. Hmm….

    I know I’ll have to write about this now at some point, but I’ll definitely need some thinking time.

  2. Posts like these are one of the reasons I love reading your blog. Whether discussing teaching, health or religion you convey the struggle of improving along with why the struggle is meaningful. Keep writing.

    • Thanks, Brian! It’s high praise.

      I’d like to ask you if you’d be interested in doing a post on how I might adapt your “modeling instruction” methodologies to teaching history.

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