How do you eat an elephant?

There is an old saying:

How do you eat an elephant?

I remember when I was first asked this question – I can’t remember how old I was, but I do remember that I was young enough that the image of a giant grey elephant loomed in my mind, larger than anything I could possibly imagine.  I can clearly remember how I pondered how difficult it would be to eat the entire elephant.  It’s funny that I don’t have any recollection of wanting to ask the obvious question, “Why would you want to eat an elephant?  Aren’t they endangered?”

But that ‘s not the point of the question.  The point is, obviously, to make a person experience exactly what I did – a monstrous task that is too enormous to even begin.

More and more students seem to arrive at my door (mostly because I sent passes, but arrive at my door they do!) with a similar problem.  They are doing a mediocre job in their classes, getting by.  They have passed many, if not all, of their state assessments over the years (we call them SOLs – yes, someone in Virginia has a sense of humor).  However, the student is suddenly in high school, and is not doing as well as he used to do.  The classes seem to be at his level, but he’s just surviving.  Parents are concerned.  Something must be done.

When you evaluate the current situation, it almost always comes out that the student doesn’t do homework, or, if he does, it is in the manner of completing a task without any learning occuring.  Homework is viewed as a necessary evil that must be completed.  Furthermore, there is no habit established.  This bright young man, or bright young woman, has never had to do homework before.

But now there is a need to complete homework.  It’s the only way to learn all the information.

So that student who just arrived, wearied by the relentless pounding that is high school academics, slumps in the chair beside my desk.  We talk about the insurmountable amount of homework and projects and tests and quizzes that are currently cresting over his head.  And then I ask:

“Do you know how to eat an elephant?”

The student sits and looks at me.  In his eyes, I can almost see him imagining that giant hulking grey form – too large to even begin.  It’s always the same, the student sits.  I let the quiet surround us.  I let him ponder.  I let him be with the elephant for a little bit.  I need him to be.  The next time he needs to ask the question, I won’t be there, and he will have to ask it of himself.

After an eternity, or thirty seconds of silence, which is an eternity for today’s teenager, I give the answer. “One bite at a time.”  Silence again as the pieces are put together.

I always make sure that the student has made the connection that he needs to connect: Your insurmountable task can be accomplished, but just one step at a time.  One bite.  One forkful.  Not the whole thing at once.

We’ll also talk about the other interventions that I have in store for him, but, now he has the momentum, and a giant grey companion to walk along with him as he slowly deconstructs his mountain.


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