Do We Let The Smurf Rescue Missions Happen Or Do We Save The Day?

Grit. Perseverance. Growth mindset. There are lots of different words to describe similar actions, and all of these words definitely fall under the category of “popular edu-jargon.” I’ll admit up front that “grit” is not my favourite word, and I have some concerns about the “growth mindset,” but two experiences in these past couple of weeks, have me thinking about these words from a different perspective. 

It started on Friday, at the end of the Before School Program. The children were over in the gym, and one of our students brought a plastic Smurf play set with her. Somehow one of the Smurfs fell down behind the heating unit. This student was incredibly concerned because another child mentioned that the heat might be on and the Smurf might burn to death. We decided to go back and have a look at the unit together. After seeing where the Smurf was located, my initial thought was to get it out for her (I had a couple of ideas about what might work), but I decided on a different tactic. I mentioned a student in the class that likes to tinker, and I suggested that she talk to him about some possible Smurf Rescue Options. She liked this idea, and this is exactly what she did. The Smurf Rescue Operation took just over 40 minutes to complete and a total of six attempts. As you can see in the documentation below, these two Kindergarten students did not give up!

I share this story because as much as these students persevered, there were many times (and reasons) that I almost stopped them.

  • They kept having to go back to the classroom to get more materials. They were both excited about this rescue mission, and I knew that they were bringing up the volume of the other children in the class.
  • This mission began as “one step forward, two steps back.” As I listened to their discussion and observed these two students in action, I noted the problems, and I wondered if they would ever get the Smurf. Would we just lose more items in the heating unit?
  • Timing was a factor. I couldn’t leave the students alone, and there was a phys-ed class in the gym after lunch. We were running out of time, and I was worried that we would have to leave the mission incomplete. How would this child feel if this was the case?
  • They started to argue. While these two students worked well together in the beginning, they started to argue more with each new attempt. They both had ideas, and while many overlapped, some were different. I worried that their arguing would get in the way of them accomplishing the task.
  • It was lunchtime. Even though we don’t observe the nutrition breaks as a class, I usually leave the classroom over these break times. I worked during most of first break and I had more work to do over this break. I still hadn’t eaten my lunch either. I’ll admit that I was eager for a break, but I decided to compromise: I ate in the gym, and uploaded documentation as I watched these two work.

I think of this list of reasons because I know that in the past, I would have used any one of these reasons to stop the problem solving. The Smurf would have been rescued, but I would have been the one doing the rescuing. What message does this send to kids?

I thought of this question again as we were tidying up yesterday. It was our Monthly Awards Assembly Day, and we all had to be in the gym at 2:40. One child had a presentation to share with the class, and we had a lot to tidy-up in the room. It was at this very moment that I noticed that one of our shelving units was missing a shelf. I asked my teaching partner, Paula, if she knew anything about this, and she didn’t. Just when I was wondering where the shelf might be, I looked closely, and saw that some students put blocks on the bottom of one shelf, lay the shelf that had fallen out on top of the blocks, and then piled more blocks on top. Some wonderful problem solving, but maybe not the safest of choices … I was about to tell the children this, when one child in the group noticed that the shelf “wasn’t stable,” and said to the other students, “We need to fix this!” Here’s what happened.

I share this story because at the time, a good friend of mine (who also happens to be a retired teacher), was in volunteering. She asked me, “When are you going to help them?” The timing factor almost led to me fixing the shelf, but I kept walking away and resisting the urge. Why? 

  • Because they had such wonderful thinking.
  • Because there was so much real world math, particularly measurement, in what they were trying to do.
  • Because they were working well together and building off of the ideas of their peers.
  • Because my teaching partner was there, supporting me in this decision.
  • Because this is what problem solving is all about, and what do the kids think of themselves and their abilities if I stop them from solving this problem?

Once again, I’m brought back to the idea of grit/perseverance/growth mindset. I think about two-year-olds that I’ve met before, and one of their favourite sayings: “I can do it myself!” When does this thinking change then, and are we the ones that cause this change to happen? Thinking about my past actions — and even some of my current ones — I’m starting to wonder if the problem with “grit” is not that students don’t have this stick-to-it-ness, but that we intervene too quickly. Could we be a part of the problem? How could we change this? I’m wondering if I need a few more “Smurf rescues” and “falling shelf fixes” in my life — maybe with slightly better timing. 🙂


2 thoughts on “Do We Let The Smurf Rescue Missions Happen Or Do We Save The Day?

  1. Thanks Aviva! A great illustration of how hard it is to resist the urge to “help”. Even in grades 1-8 we often step in to show the steps, thinking we are helping students learn. Our students learn so much more about themselves and problem solving when we observe and ask questions. Your documentation really illustrates how the problem solving model is not linear. When kids are engaged in authentic problem solving they naturally spend the most time understanding the problem and making a plan. Reflection is automatic and frequent. A common complaint of teachers of math is that “kids don’t understand the problem” or they just try to carry out the plan and give up. I sometimes think we need to look at our own ideas of what authentic and engaging math looks like.

    • Thanks for your comment, Kelly! An excellent point here. I think that the new K Program Document really helps us see math and language differently. It helps us view math problems from a different lens. I wonder if this same thinking will trickle up in the grades. I hope it does. I know that I’ve intervened multiple times over the years, and for multiple reasons, but looking back at these two examples, I wonder if I was too quick to jump in.


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