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Stories from The Third Chapter: Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot’s Keynote at ASCD 2011

ASCD 2011, Bold Actions for Complex Challenges, San Francisco


The last keynote of the 2011 ASCD Annual Conference in San Francisco, was Dr. Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, professor from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education.  Dr. Lawrence-Lightfoot, a sociologist, has authored numerous books and has spent a portion of her career examining school culture, helping schools understand themselves.  Most recently, Dr. Lawrence-Lightfoot spent a few years interviewing people in their 50s-70s to record ways in which people embrace change in their life as they contemplate retirement or a career change.  This work became the subject of her most recent book, The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk & Adventure in the 25 years after 50.  She tells the story of a lawyer who leaves a law firm for divinity school, a mechanical engineer who becomes an artist, a physicist who becomes a middle school teacher, and a businesswoman who returns to international relief work.  These stories framed her keynote at ACSD entitled, The Third Chapter: Adventure, Passion, and Risk. 

Books written by Dr. Lawrence-Lightfoot are:

  • Worlds Apart: Relationships Between Families and Schools (1978)
  • Beyond Bias: Perspectives on Classrooms (1978)
  • The Good High School: Portraits of Character and Courage (1983)
  • Balm in Gilead: Journey of a Healer (1988)
  • Respect (1990)
  • I’ve Known Rivers: Lives of Loss and Liberation (1995)
  • The Art and Science of Portraiture (1997)
  • The Essential Conversation: What Parents and Teachers Can Learn from Each Other (2003)
  • The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk, and Adventure in the 25 Years After 50 (2009)

Also, see an interview that Bill Moyers conducted on PBS with Dr. Lawrence-Lightfoot.  This interview will encapsulate a portion of what she shared with us in San Francisco at ASCD.

Her keynote was inspiring, poetic, and visionary.  It is hard to put into words the “speech” of a person who is so articulate and motivating. In the beginning, she talked about the value of story, a central component of her most recent book.

 “When we all meet we communicate with family stories.”

She pointed out that the value of story emerges when we look for meaning in our lives.  Stories become a compelling way in which we communicate with each other.  Given the power of storytelling, we should teach students in our schools to learn how to write and tell stories.  Is storytelling part of our curriculum, and if not, what can we do about that?  Dr. Lawrence-Lightfoot is a master at telling meaningful stories., not only in her talks but also in her books.

As she continued her reflections on the wisdom of people in their 50s-70s, I couldn’t help but think how important it will be for school reform to be led by centered, focused, & healthy educators, who serve as role models for our students. Where are we, the elders of the teaching profession, on our journey towards healthy development in our efforts to reform schooling in the 21st Century?  Dr. Lawrence-Lightfoot provided many “bright spots” in her efforts to show that our elders have the wisdom to lead the new learning represented in The Third Chapter.

To find meaning in life, we have to be prepared to reinvent our lives in purposeful ways.  I saw the picture Dr. Lawrence-Lightfoot was painting in her keynote as the work of innovative, creative, and adaptive people who are “willing to take risks.”

I was struck by the contrast of her keynote with those of Chip Heath and Peter Reynolds.  Each of their keynotes were slick, technological, and interesting.  Their messages were grisp, but required technology as a tool to get the message across.  Dr. Lawrence-Lightfoot engaged us with her poetic images, her literary prowess, and her powerful stories.  A throw back to a different way of communicating a message in the 21st Century.

She talked about the idea of “giving forward versus giving back.”  She encouraged those elders in the 50s-70s to engage in service that looks to the future, in which their “altruism provides a vision for our students.”

Tweet from ASCD

We need to listen to the voices of our children and our children’s children. – Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot #ASCD11

This quote from her keynote summarizes one aspect of the journey that people she interviewed were on:

“your vocation is that place where your deep gladness meets the world’s greatness needs.”

She pointed out that the most difficult part of “venturing forward is losing the fear to act.  Roma, one of the people she interviewed, changed from being a physics professor to teaching astronomy to middle school children.  In making the transition to a new career, she had to “lose the fear” of teaching younger people.  She had to learn new ways of doing things in life.  There were many risks, but risks worth taking. 

In concluding her keynote, Dr. Lawrence-Lightfoot presented her five meta-lessons. 

Lesson #1 rethinking purposes & boundaries of schooling in US.

Lesson #2: inter-generational relationships, reduce inter-generational segregation between young and old, tapping into relationships, and build bridges between generations.

Lesson #3: Scarcity & reinvention, she found many tales of struggle, adaptation, resilience.  Scarcity moves us to adapt.

Lesson #4: Crossing boundaries into unknown-our efforts to “give forward” require that we follow our curiosity, we stay interested in new learning, and we remodel our lives.

Lesson #5: Imagery & innovation-fundamental social change requires a collaborative effort that will demand a change in our discourse & policies.

Tweek from ASCD

Lessons from Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot: new learning requires us to rethink the structure of schooling.

In lesson #1, Dr. Lawrence-Lightfoot referred to a need to rethink how we envision “speed.”  Traditional school is about getting to finish line.  What are we racing towards?  What are we doing to our young people as we push them through school in a very rigid fashion?  Through our system of grading, high-stakes testing, yearly promotion to a new grade, and the march to graduation, we tend to label students in ways that can damage their sense of self and their creativity.  We have the:

  • good student,
  • honor student,
  • disengaged student,
  • unmotivated student, or
  • ADHD student.

A question that I keep coming back to that relates to Lesson #1 is the path to mastery of ideas, content, skills or a course of study the same for every student?  I think the answer is no, but then our K-12 schooling looks almost the same for all students.   

In her presentation of Lesson #1, Dr. Lawrence-Lightfoot worries about the contrast between in-school versus out-of-school learning.   She sees these two forms of learning to be out-of-synch.   What we learn in our traditional schools is disconnected from the real world we live in.  We need to connect the two in more enduring ways.

From Lesson #2, she would conclude that people in their “third chapter” need to be seen as role models and resources for our younger people.  She encourages us to build bridges and connect schools and students to the stories of their “elders.”  In fact, bring the wisdom and resources of our “elders” into our schools.

From Lesson #4, she talked about taking risks or leaps of faith.  Granted we will experience failure along the way, but that’s part of learning.  Losing the fear, especially the fear of failure, will allow us to take risks, “giving forward.”  I was struck by this image she painted:

“failure is our diagnostic tool for how we learn, and leads us to develop empathy so that we can put ourselves in the shoes of our teachers.”

I hope I have painted a picture of her inspiring keynote.  It certainly lifted up the audience to give her a well-deserved, standing ovation.

6 comments on “Stories from The Third Chapter: Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot’s Keynote at ASCD 2011

  1. Those words are some strong and profound food for the thoughts. Never really I ever seen or hear any talk like this. She encourage teachers to use storytelling as a method to educate students, and understanding that this foster imagination as well as allowing students to be self aware. Also that through storytelling, the teacher should teach students how to put them in wording. She talks about the education system, and that the knowledge students accumulate in the classroom has nothing to do with the wisdom of out-side life. She encourage the creation of bridges that would connect generations.

    I am in agreement to the statement, that elders have the wisdom lead this generation. As well as for us to find meaning in life, we ought to be prepared to renew our lives in purposeful ways… These words are illuminating to the soul of a passionate teacher.

    Posted by Ricardo McFarlane.


    • So glad you enjoyed her reflections and found them stimulating. I find Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot to be one of the most thoughtful and informed educators of our time. She is leaving a lasting impact on how we think about relationships in our work as educators.




  2. Dr. Lawrence has really inspired me as a young teacher. I share similar sentiments with regards to storytelling and the incorporation of the experience and wisdom of our elders within the school curriculum. In everyday life, we all appreciate and entertain ourselves through storytelling. As babies, our parents read to us before we go to sleep. Why not make it standard in the education system? Storytelling is a very good tool that can foster creative imagination and composition in our students.
    Another salient point I gleaned from her interview and reading was the amazing thought of how failure act as a diagnostic tool for how we learn. This was very profound because it is quite natural for humans to fear failing. If we can use failure as a stepping stone then I believe our successes world be more meaningful and rewarding.
    Posted by Marcia Jeffers


    • Marcia:

      You said it very well. I would add that as someone who has been in education for nearly 33 years and had the honor to be in Dr. Lawrence-Lightfoot’s lectures or workshops a number of times, I would totally agree that she is inspiring.

      Storytelling is a wonderful art form that should be used more in education. In fact, Marcia Tate, the author of Worksheets Don’t Grow Dendrites, has storytelling as one of her twenty strategies a teacher should use to create a brain-friendly classroom (see my blog post on the topic for more about Marcia Tate). You might also look at her website Developing Minds at:

      Thanks for reading my blog and posting a comment.



  3. Dr. Lawrence is a phenomenal individual who has alot to invoke. As an aspiring teacher, i have learnt that story telling is something that is concieve from the inside and one way to unleash or give birth to that idea, is to be free to express ourselves and not be afraid to make a fool of ourselves. she empasizes that failure is not a crime but it should be regarded as a tool to step over another threshold into a new realm. she referred to collaborative learning and this is a method that each one learns from one another. This is a profound statement that i think should be manifested in the clasroom. This presentation has helped me to view life from a myriad of different of angles and to be innovative and be creative without fear.


    • I would concur with the ideas you expressed. Embrace failure, learn from our mistakes, and use the knowledge to improve and grow. In education, we only reward success, we decrement failure. What if our grading system where switched around to reward the failures that turn into successes. That would be novel.



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