An Independent School • Grades 5-12

by Michael Town, Upper School science and engineering teacher

In our year-end survey of Honors Physics students, we ask them to share a “shout out” or funny thing that happened in class that year, to be shared with the larger group.

One student response: “Shout out to the whole class for that time where we all pretended like we knew what we were doing when we had absolutely no idea!”

Last fall a fire drill deprived this student’s class of twenty minutes of instruction. I have no short-term (or long-term) memory and treated this group of students like the rest of my classes the next day. So when class started, an entire class of ambitious and well-intentioned students jumped into action looking for data without a good idea of what the data were for or how to collect it. It took me several minutes to detect the mass subterfuge.

It is a skill to be able to admit mistakes and seek help. Vulnerability is key to this process. As an educator, I am realizing that communities need mechanisms to facilitate the vulnerable exchange to overcome taboos around seeking or giving help. 

Enter stage right: The Silver Turkey - a small, silver salt shaker in the shape of a turkey

The Silver Turkey is an honor awarded to someone in my classroom who has made a mistake and has vulnerably shared the lessons learned from that mistake. One can freely share one’s own Silver Turkey Story, but must have permission to nominate someone else to share. When someone is sharing a Silver Turkey Story, we listen, laugh, cry, and figure how not to do that again. The more people that hear the story, the more immune the herd.

I have been experimenting with the Silver Turkey for a few years now, and have found that it is easier to admit to physical mistakes than cognitive mistakes. Students freely share when they bumble in the shop, but an algebraic mistake is somehow more personal. No surprise here. I empathize, but I also think we can do better.

The Great Data Collection Conspiracy gave me an important opportunity to model vulnerability and the proper use of The Silver Turkey. I brought the class together and awarded myself a Silver Turkey for not tracking what I had explained to the class. They had a good laugh at me. Lesson to me: Take and review daily notes on where classes end, especially under unusual circumstances. 

Silver Turkeys often come in pairs or even bundles, so we then examined how each small group in the classroom was hiding their confusion from me and each other. Lesson to students: Students have a responsibility to ask questions when they don’t understand something. 

The experiment continues as I try to bring mathematical operations (e.g. distributing negative signs or squaring a quantity), writing mechanics, and conceptual processes under the umbrella of The Silver Turkey. Student reflections in the year-end survey showed I have had some success recently with this effort. I also suspect Physics students still hide their mistakes and misconceptions from me and each other.

Special thanks to fellow science teacher David Joneschild: David was at Rummage one day looking for goodies when he found two silver turkey-shaped salt shakers. He thought they would be perfect for the resilience training he and I had been discussing. He was right. Thanks, David! 

A Silver Turkey on Silver Turkeys: The Silver Turkey was not a mechanism that seemed to work for David. He stopped using it at some point in favor of other ways to promote vulnerability in the classroom. After that I think I had them both for a while. David thinks he kept one of them unused for some time. Now there is only one Silver Turkey. The second is around here, somewhere... Lesson to us: keep better track of your Silver Turkeys!