No Soloists (an Excerpt)

Below is an excerpt from a speech I gave at Montclair Kimberley Academy’s opening meeting (8/30/21). I’ve touched it up slightly to make it relevant to any group of school colleagues starting their work together. And to you I say, godspeed and good luck!

There are No Soloists: What I Learned from Reading about Pecan Trees in Franklin, North Carolina

Toward the end of the summer, I drove my family to a house that was hanging off the side of a mountain in Franklin, North Carolina. The view of the Smoky Mountains afforded me wonderful perspective – the chance to really take stock of a tough 18 months. 

It also allowed me, finally, to feast on a book that had stared up at my from my coffee table throughout the 20 – 21 school year. 

Reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants was everything I hoped it would be. I’m still processing much of it, but I wanted to share some of what I learned about what is called “mast fruiting” and how it happens in pecan trees. 

If you had a pecan tree in your front yard, as I now understand it, it wouldn’t always produce lots of pecans.  Some years, you might have to shake the limbs to find them.  The crop could appear almost dormant. 

And then, at some point, there would be an all-out pecan explosion – a bumper crop – unpredictably. 

I want you to take a moment to think about why this might happen. 

I had you develop your own hypothesis because that’s what a science teacher might do at the start of a lesson. They might try to surface or guess where your natural perceptions of the world might actually get in the way of your understanding of scientific truth.

So here’s where Kimmerer expects us to go wrong if left to our own common sense about the way “mast fruiting” works:

This boom and bust cycle remains a playground of hypotheses for tree physiologists and evolutionary biologists. Forest ecologists hypothesize that mast fruiting is the simple outcome of [an] energetic equation: make fruit only when you can afford it. That makes sense.

Maybe you were close to that . . . and maybe you weren’t.  Maybe you thought that each pecan tree just had to be fiercely individual enough to save up enough materials to produce a glorious yield.

According to Kimmerer, that’s not how it works.  And here’s her big reveal:

If this were true, each tree would fruit on its own schedule, predictable by the size of its reserves of stored starch.  But they don’t.  If one tree fruits, they all fruit — there are no soloists.  Not one tree in a grove, but the whole grove; not one grove in the forest, but every grove; all across the country and all across the state.  The trees act not as individuals, but somehow as a collective.  Exactly how they do this, we don’t yet know.  But what we see is the power of unity.  What happens to one happens to us all.  We can starve together or feast together.  All flourishing is mutual.

All flourishing is mutual.  The trees need each other to do their best work.  

When I read that last line the first time, it almost made me fall off the mountain I was reading it on. And, yes, it made me think about collaboration among teachers.

When my seniors are responding to a questionnaire this fall, they will be bringing to bear a standard for teaching that they established in someone else’s classroom. When I ask them about SEL in my class, for example, their standard for good teacher-student relationships, for how they hope to be treated, might well have been established in a kindergarten or sixth grade classroom with a completely different teacher.

Or when several more senior colleagues watch a second year math teacher teach and then talk excitedly at the lunch table before heading back into their own classrooms with new energy, they will flourish because that new teacher is flourishing.  

Like the mast fruiting of pecan trees, no one knows exactly how great teaching happens, but we do know that a school is likely to surface bumper crops of learning when its teachers don’t think of themselves as soloists, when they recognize, instead, that all flourishing is mutual. Not one teacher in a department, but the whole department.  Not one department, but a whole division.  Not one division, but a whole school. 

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