Gators Give Back: Building Meaningful Community Service

Josh Vogt stepped into my office and handed me a calendar. “Umm, thank you,” I offered.

“October,” was his only instruction. I examined the annual Day by Day calendar published by the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless. As instructed, I turned to October, expecting to see a photograph of our students. Instead I saw a picture of a group of people I did not recognize, taken downtown near a local homeless shelter. “Bella.” I looked closer but did not see the student he named, and I looked up at him.

“Bella TOOK this picture. This is her picture, from the Mayerson experience this summer.”

The evident pride on his face was well-earned. Josh has worked diligently with students in our school to help them become aware of the social and economic factors that contribute to poverty in our community. For four years he has led a Peace and Justice intersession at Gamble Montessori which includes an overnight “shantytown” experience, where students construct a cardboard shelter and sleep in it overnight on our school grounds. He had, most recently, given up a summer week, 11 hours a day, to partner with our students, the Mayerson Foundation, and Cincinnatians experiencing homelessness. The goal was to humanize the problem, and help students understand the difficulties faced by the poorest of the poor. But what he wanted was this – not to have students merely become aware of the problem, but to have them be part of the effort to fix it. Bella was contributing meaningfully to the conversation.

Students sort materials at a local service organization.
Students sort materials at a local service organization.

For a generation, students in high schools have been doing community service in increasingly formal programs. Nearly every high school in the Cincinnati area has a community service requirement that centers around accumulating a certain number of service hours over a high school career. The Mayerson Foundation, which generates and implements “innovative approaches to important issues” in Cincinnati, has helped promote a culture of community service in more than 30 high schools and districts around the greater Cincinnati area, and is a leader in structuring programs designed to promote community service and related service learning. Nationwide, about a quarter of our population participates in meaningful community service annually, though there has been a slight decline since 2011.[1]

Community service, can be broadly defined. In school, often it is a teacher who sets up an opportunity for individual students or an entire class to participate in an activity designed to help a person or organization. This can take many different forms. Gamble students have planted butterfly gardens and removed invasive plants, they have repaired fences to keep out predators and spent time with traumatized animals to prepare them to live with a new owner, and they have worked with toddlers and the elderly.

This passion for involving students in giving of their time and talents to others is beneficial. The community gains an energetic and impressionable army of workers, who often drag friends and family into the work. Students gain a sense of accomplishment and begin to see the scope of the work of adulthood, and the real problems faced not just in other countries but by those in their own backyard. It develops a sense of self-efficacy in the student, who can see themselves as a helper instead of someone who needs the help of others. It fosters grace and courtesy, as we teach lessons about the environment, the elderly, and people experiencing homelessness, and students become comfortable with manners in a variety of new circumstances.

Additionally, developing a habit of volunteering can actually lengthen one’s life, as older folks who volunteer regularly are shown to live longer than those who do not, when controlling for other factors[2]. Finally, we know that adolescents crave meaningful work while resisting busy-work, and tangibly helping a person or an agency as part of a larger cause helps satisfy this urge to make a real impact in their own community.

So volunteering is good. How do we get students to buy in?

Until now, the answer has been: make them do it.

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Gamble Montessori looked at other schools’ requirements and settled on an average number of hours from neighboring schools. High school students were asked to compete 50 hours of service a year, for a total of 200 hours required for graduation. Middle school students had a slightly reduced requirement of 30 hours each year.

From the beginning, student involvement in our community service requirement was uneven. Only a few of our students, born into families with strong community service ethics and the means to support this passion, met the requirement each year. Others struggled to make the required total, and sought flexibility in the rules of what we would call service. Teachers found themselves broadening the definition of service. Soon the student lists included raking leaves for grandparents, to dishwashing at home, and we even accepted spending time at home with siblings while parents were at work as community service. Other students failed to meet even this newly broadened standard, and we found ourselves in the position of asking if we were passionate enough about our commitment to service that we would prevent a student from graduating if the requirement was not met. We answered by quietly ignoring the requirement.

The odds seemed stacked against getting all of our students to meet this expectation.

The hours and evidence were hard to track at high school. We tried monitoring it through our advisory, but with infrequent meetings in a class where we typically did not keep grades, the tracking was uneven and unreliable. There was also the issue of keeping and verifying evidence. It was suggested that we centralize it and the task was assigned to one teacher assistant at the school. This seemed to be working until the paper records were entirely lost in a building move. Finally, with the help of a counselor – available through use of a temporary grant – we purchased a program for helping the students track their own hours online. After about a year of implementation, we had trained most of our students in the program, but found that the additional step of self-recording appeared to have diminished our community service participation.

Frustratingly, we also had to confront the reality that some of our students were among those who benefited from charitable giving in the Cincinnati area. More than 70% of Gamble Montessori students are living in poverty, as measured by their eligibility for free or reduced price lunch. Several of our students qualify for assistance under the McKinney-Vento act, designed for students who have experienced homelessness.

This showed up several years ago, when teacher Gloria Lane was working with students to identify a place where they wanted to do some service. One of our 8th graders reported to his teacher that he wanted to work at a particular church that was far from his home. When she asked why he would choose a site that would be hard to get to, she told me that he shared with the class, “They brought presents to my little brother last year. They were really nice.” We explored the irony, or perhaps it was something worse than mere irony, of asking students living in poverty to give their time and resources to helping others. While the spirit of giving was strong (it is my observation that often our poorest families are the quickest to give and the most generous), it felt unfair to make the same demand on our neediest families.

The final nail in the coffin came through the observation made off-hand by a staff member, perhaps Josh himself, at a meeting where the service requirement was being discussed. “It’s another step in the school to prison pipeline. We’re making them do community service hours to get out.”

Ugh.

Sure enough, the perception among some members of our society is that community service is assigned in response to committing misdemeanors. Service as a consequence is so pervasive in our society that local United Way agencies maintain a list of agencies that provide opportunities for people needing to complete court-ordered community service. So our requirement, instead of creating an internal desire to do service for others, was instead inadvertently associating school with crime and punishment in the minds of some of our students. This could reasonably be seen as a powerful motive for some of our students to resist the requirement.

Still, we knew that the act of service is important for students and the community, and we sought to find the right program to build this habit. We had been trying to provide technical solutions to a larger, cultural (or adaptive) problem. We needed a revolution.

Students work to prepare a celebration and exhibition of the work of local visionaries and voices.
Students work to prepare a celebration and exhibition of the work of local visionaries and voices.

Recently, through our partnership with Clare Blankemeyer of the Mayerson Foundation, Gamble teacher Josh Vogt took a revolutionary new approach to service at the school level and created a program he called “Gators Give Back.” While we still have some of the same tracking and participation issues – technical problems that we hope can be resolved – it is a brilliant answer to the larger, adaptive problem of addressing the desire to participate by creating a real relationship between the student and the work.

In Gators Give Back, the hours and hours of potentially disconnected service, possibly spent at dozens of agencies addressing a range of problems, or raking leaves and babysitting, are replaced by a single focus area chosen by the individual student.

The difference between the old program and Gators Give Back is stark, evident right from the first service activity through the finalization of their senior project. At each high school grade, the requirement is distinct from the old “counting 50 hours” expectation.

Ninth graders, instead of being asked to provide evidence of 50 hours of service, select one opportunity from a list provided by the Gators Give Back committee. They are encouraged to attend with a classmate. Then, responding to a prompt, they write a reflection on the experience, which they share with their classmates.

Tenth graders are asked to dig a little bit deeper. Again encouraged to do this in a group of two or three, they must attend the same agency two or three times, gaining an awareness of the social impact and importance of a particular topic. This time, instead of writing a personal reflection, students are asked to take on the role of advocate. In a letter to a public official, they are to explain what they have learned about their chosen agency and the need it meets, and then suggest ways the public official could assist in the area of need.

Our close partnership with the visionary Mayerson Foundation is an essential component of the 11th grade requirement, philanthropy. Our juniors take stewardship over $1,500 dollars provided by the Mayerson’s Magnified Giving program, created by local philanthropist Roger Grein. Over the course of the year, they investigate the work of the agencies they already know firsthand, reviewing grant proposals that are written directly to the students from competing agencies,  and researching the needs of the agencies and the community. They invite the agencies to bring proposals to the group. Ultimately, using criteria they have devised, they award the $1,500 to a deserving agency in a triumphant end-of-the-year ceremony.

Noticeably absent from these first three years of the program are the reliance on counting hours, and the likelihood of students experiencing a range of different and uneven volunteering experiences.  Instead, students in the Gators Give Back program find themselves serving and reflecting and learning about a particular area of concern, while thinking about multiple aspects of the service. Whereas a student in the former program might have spent hours folding clothes donated to a local shelter, a student today gets an experience with a trusted partner like Visionaries and Voices, then explains the problem to someone in a position to help, and steps into the role of the person in a position to help.

The Gators Give Back manual provides a list of possible agencies and areas of need, and provides templates and prompts for the writing, as well as key definitions for terms such as service learning and advocacy.

Students in our program gain a nuanced understanding of the relationship between societal needs, face to face assistance, and the agencies and systems that can either ameliorate or exacerbate the conditions that make the service necessary.

Senior year, the service project becomes more involved, intertwining with senior project in a segment aligned with the Youth for Justice curriculum. The work is far more involved, requiring several components, and deepening the student’s involvement in issues and solutions.

The senior must select a service topic that relates to their year-long project, often with a connection to their intended career or area of study in college. They must seek out a mentor who is knowledgeable in that area, who will guide them in learning about the topic and making suggestions for meaningful action. Then, importantly, students must begin to implement that solution. At this level, we initially had a minimum requirement of hours, as well as a minimum number of contacts with the mentor, but in practice we found that many of our students had so many contacts during the process that tracking them seemed artificial, and the requirement has fallen by the wayside.

Our seniors are responsible for tracking this progress, and for presenting the work as part of their senior project. This step helped address the accountability issue that existed when community service was a standalone hours-counting project. Enmeshed with their senior project, the work becomes more personal, and directly tied to graduation. Senior Project is a non-negotiable for graduation at Gamble.

I attended one successful project, a domestic violence awareness walk organized by Tariah Washington. Replete with catered food and special-order t-shirts bearing her slogan, the walk drew 50 people who marched and carried placards around our school neighborhood before eating and hearing the presentation Tariah prepared.

Jack and friends join a student-created march against domestic violence.
Jack and friends join a student-created march against domestic violence.

The Gators Give Back program is revolutionary because it tackles the kinds of problems that have been plaguing community service programs in high school since their inception. Students are not providing hours of disconnected service in multiple places. Instead they are building meaningful connections with issues of need in their own community. Now, hopefully, students find that service is inextricably linked to a required graduation component. They cannot hope to duck under the gaze of an individual tracking their hours, as the largest portion of the work is part of senior project. Now: impoverished students who may find themselves served by an agency can see a role for themselves beyond receiving or giving temporary help, instead working in the role of advocate and benefactor. This gives them practical skills that they can use in their own situation to make a sustainable change in their own family’s situation. Now: our program is not aligned with the mandatory, punitive community service programs in the justice system, counting hours until release.

Josh related to me a longer version of Bella’s story.

“Bella is one of those students whose life was literally changed by serving others. I’ll never forget that during the summer program, she was strongly advocating for eliminating spikes on concrete that some businesses put on the ground to discourage people experiencing homelessness from sleeping there. One of the StreetVibes vendors we were working with was actually sticking up for the businesses, but Bella did not back down. Another of the vendors raised his hand and said ‘No, man, I agree with her’ and the other vendors started clapping!”

Through service, advocacy, philanthropy, and mentored service learning, students in the Gators Give Back program transcend typical service. Instead they are empowered to act in an area that is meaningful for them.

As a school we have more come a long way, but there are still improvements we could make. This service paper could be incorporated as requirements in English and social studies classes. The letter they write in 10th grade meets a specific requirement for the ELA standards, and working on this in class for a grade would reinforce the requirement, improve the writing, and provide additional support for the student and the work in the school.  Advocacy certainly meets high-level expectations in American History and Government classes.

This is how we are doing service at Gamble.

How can you promote service, advocacy, and philanthropy at your school? What have we missed?

 

[1] https://www.nationalservice.gov/pdf/07_0506_hbr.pdf

[2] https://www.bls.gov/news.release/volun.nr0.htm

Decisions, Decisions … Determining How to Decide

“I just really want my Team Leaders to decide and tell me what to do.”

Evan’s statement hit me like a ton of bricks.  He had just asked me a question about fee payment and student participation in field experiences. Instead of answering, I had turned his question back on him, asking for his opinion on the issue.

His response felt so familiar, except this time I was on the other end of the exchange.  His words reminded me eerily of my own statement to Jack many years ago in a similar situation, “Please just tell me what to do, and I will go do it.”

Evan didn’t want to give input.  He wanted to be provided with a clear directive.  I had hesitated in my response, thinking that I needed to gather information and take peoples’ opinions into account.

No, I didn’t.  This wasn’t a complex issue.  It was a bit tricky because our past practice didn’t match our stated policy, but we had a policy.  I could issue a directive, and, as Evan had gently noted, that was my job.

So, I did what he asked. I made a decision aligned with our policy and shared it with all members of the team.  Done.  Handled.

But when it rains, it pours, and within a week of this exchange I found myself in a second, very similar decision-making situation.

This time, I was separately approached by both the art teacher and the agricultural education teacher asking for assistance with management of my students during their classes.  I readily provided suggestions, but with their large class sizes, I knew that what they really needed was a second set of hands.  Because I lead a team that includes a paraprofessional, I was in a position to offer this help.

The quickest and easiest solution was to respond to these requests for help by offering the use of Minet, our paraprofessional, during these two classes; however, I was concerned.  There are a lot of other specialist teachers in our building who also work with my students.  Were they having similar challenges?  Should I solve the problem that was right in front of me, or should I dig deeper to see what else might be out there?  I was worried that there were teachers who were similarly frustrated, but who had not thought to ask for support.

In addition, while I serve as the team leader, there are seven teachers who are impacted by the use of our paraprofessional.  To assign her to work in another classroom meant a loss of her support for these teachers during their planning time.  Should I involve these teachers in the decision? Did I need to gather their input before moving forward?

A brief conversation with Jack helped me to conceptualize what I needed to do.

Really this issue involved two decisions:

  • Assigning Minet to support elective classes during our team planning time
  • Building a schedule to best support these elective classes

For the first, I decided that, like in the fees and field experiences situation, I did not need input from my team before offering up the assistance of our paraprofessional in elective classes.  The primary function of any school staff person is to support students.

I felt confident that assigning our paraprofessional to help support behavioral stabilization of our students was the right decision, even though it would result in the teachers on my team losing some assistance.  In addition, it was aligned with building policy and past practice.  While gathering input from the team could serve to reinforce and garner support for my thinking, it also could lead to unnecessary debate, and it would certainly cost everyone precious time. This seemed like a needless muddying of the waters, so I made this decision unilaterally.

However, in looking at how to build a schedule to allow Minet to best support elective classrooms I felt like I made a nearly opposite decision.  Rather than cleanly deciding, I sent the issue back to the specialist team, and I asked them to guide me in how to best assign the use of this support. In this case, I explicitly asked for input and debate when I had intentionally chosen not to do this exact thing with my team just moments before.

In a single situation, I was implying that team input both mattered and didn’t matter. On the one hand, with my team, I was operating in alignment with my frequently stated concern, “Don’t make us debate it among ourselves,” while, simultaneously, I was asking the specialist team to do exactly that, to debate it among themselves.

I felt strongly that in each circumstance the decision I made was the correct one. But why? What made the difference?

I was certain that is all made sense somehow, and yet it also seemed to make no sense at all.

I was reminded of a conversation on social media in response to my recent post exploring leadership. The discussion was really between Jack and his former principal and mentor, Bob Suess, but since it was conducted on my Facebook page, I was privy to it.

Bob, in his wisdom, said this, “A leadership model that informs leaders of the correct approach to every possible issue in every possible situation … doesn’t and never will exist.” While I know the inherent truth in this statement, I found it to be both frustrating and relieving, in equal measure.

If the leadership answer key doesn’t exist, then I can stop spending so much energy searching for it; however if it doesn’t exist then I will also remain eternally unsure relative to what to do when.

But Bob didn’t leave me hanging, he also said this, “With all the variables, one might recommend that, given a+b+c+ . . +h, one should most likely choose approach or strategy m, r, or z, but leadership cannot be reduced to a mathematical formula. Leaders must always draw upon their own professional and personal knowledge, observations, and understanding to select the approach the best fits that particular situation.”

I know that what he wanted me to take away from this statement is that every situation is unique and there is never a singular right answer that fits every instance. But he also threw me a lifeline in referencing that while there may not be a formula, there may be patterns, and a series of most-likely, best-fit options.

So I went back and examined the leadership decisions I had recently made and explored my own thinking relative to each.

I was able to make a unilateral decision regarding the fee payment-field experience issue because we had a policy. I found my written record of this policy in our minutes, and I acted in accordance with it. It wasn’t the warmest, fuzziest feel-good response to the issue, but it was clear and clean. Why would I waste people’s time gathering input, when we had already established policy?

Similarly, I was able to offer the use of our paraprofessional without collecting input from the team because the decision had a clear answer that aligned with our building value of putting the needs of students first, and we had implemented a similar procedure in the past.

I asked myself why I didn’t feel the same level of clarity about simply assigning our paraprofessional to the teachers who had asked for assistance. I realized that it was because I felt like I didn’t have all the information. There were potential missing pieces related to what may have been unspoken needs from other teachers in the building.  This is why I sent it back to the specialist team for further review.

Based on this self-reflection, I began constructing a series of questions to ask myself when working toward a decision.

  • Do I have all the necessary information?
  • Do I have the authority to make the decision?
  • Is my proposed solution aligned with institutional values and practices?
  • Is my proposed solution a clear, best solution?

I threaded this mental exploration together with information from Conversational Capacity and A Failure of Nerve, (which Jack and I have written about previously here and here) and ultimately, I developed this flowchart, which I have dubbed a Decision-Making Tree.

Decision-Making Flowchart. Click to enlarge.

Decision making is hard.  There are often many variables and a variety of solutions, each with a separate set of pros and cons.

While, I am aware that any tool like this runs the risk of making the complex task of decision-making seem like a simplistic process, I also am a strong believer in clear processes.  The more frequently we can use process and procedure to guide us, the more efficient we will be in our work and the less often we will be caught up in personalized conflict.

In addition, a clear process can help propel us to action.  It can take courage to pull the trigger on making a decision.  It’s always easier to have someone else do this for us – after all, then we cannot be held solely accountable for the outcome of the decision.  It often feels better to decide by majority vote or by consensus because that creates shared responsibility, but this does not always yield a better result. In light of this, leaders are charged with making clear, executive decisions when appropriate.

On the flowchart, if the answers to all the questions in the left-column are “yes,” then the leader is in a position to unilaterally go ahead and make a decision. Doing so may feel uncomfortable, or even downright scary, but ultimately this saves everyone in the institution both time and potential discord.

These types of unilateral decisions also create a kind of psychological safety in an institution, as they lend clarity to responsibilities and expectations, and indicate what the non-negotiables are. In education, we often talk about the importance of establishing boundaries for children.  This is no less true for adults. We all need to clearly understand what is expected of us and what the procedures and values of the organization are.

Similarly, it is important to share expectations around how a decision will be made.  Will it be made unilaterally by a leader informed by input from others?  Will it be made by a vote from a decision-making body?  Does it require consensus from an entire group?  In Conversational Capacity, Craig Weber discusses the importance of knowing this prior to beginning discussion on an issue.

Regardless of how the decision will ultimately be made, it is often, although not always, necessary to gather input from a variety of sources. Weber reinforces the importance of engaging in challenging conversations through the implementation of both curiosity (actively asking questions about potential opposing views) and candor (clearly and directly stating thoughts and concerns).

I, like many others, am prone to focus exclusively on the merits of my own proposed solutions and neglect to intentionally seek out the thoughts of those in opposition.  Having a piece built into the flowchart that focuses on requesting feedback from those likely to be opposed, as well as those likely to be in agreement, serves as an important reminder for me to take this step when necessary, even if it yields discomfort in the discussion.

If Weber’s contribution to the flowchart is the importance of hearing all relevant arguments.  Friedman’s is in the potential perils of consensus. In A Failure of Nerve, Friedman expresses concerns about consensus weakening the value systems of institutions by requiring compromise.  His argument is that the process of seeking consensus requires the finding of a middle ground. This necessarily pulls people away from the more powerful higher ground, and allows those misaligned with institutional values to control the conversation.  Friedman calls this “sandbagging.”

Consensus can certainly be a powerful decision-making tool; however, in light of Friedman’s arguments, I suggest that consensus be used infrequently and only for issues that address cultural shifts for the institution as a whole.  If a leader is seeking consensus because it feels good and avoids a conflictual outcome, this is likely not a powerful enough reason to implement this strategy.

Weber expresses concerns about the potential perils of consensus-seeking as well: “Remember, balanced dialogue is not about talking until everyone on the team reaches agreement; it’s about helping the person making the decision make the most informed and effective choice possible. … Once you have enough information on the table to help the decision maker make an informed choice, move on to the next issue.” (172-173)

Regardless of how a decision is made, once it is determined, it needs to be implemented.  But be prepared.  It is nearly guaranteed that a decision, once made, will be questioned by those it impacts. Perhaps this questioning and challenge is part of the human condition. While it is true that not all decisions are good ones, this cannot be determined until a period of implementation has occurred.

For this reason, Jack asked me to embed a stop sign in the flowchart.  (He won’t admit it, but I think it’s there for me.  I have a propensity to question every decision, and to actively seek flaws in any plan. I’m certain that I challenge him far more than he appreciates.) Jack wanted this symbol to serve as a reminder of firmness of intent – a resistance to wavering under challenge.

In thinking about my own tendencies, I considered what message I need to hear that would be resolute against weakening resolve, but would also honor my voice. I identified three important components to an effective response to challenge:

  • A clear articulation of the decision
  • A summary of the most important rationales leading to the decision
  • An indication that the decision could be revisited after a given time if it proved to be problematic

Decision making is often both difficult and complicated.  And yet leaders are required to make myriad decisions every day.  While I know that Bob is correct in saying that there is no answer key and there is no singular right way, having tools to guide us can make things simpler.

In some ways, perhaps Bob and I are saying much the same thing. In his closing remarks, he noted that ultimately a leader must, “move the institution and its members in the right direction, day by day, week by week, month by month, and year by year. Only by looking back over a longer period of time does one ever fully appreciate the distance travelled. I always liked the analogy of the organizational leader as the individual walking next to an elephant and guiding its direction by gently tapping it with a stick.”

This sounds very much like what Jack calls, “playing The Long Game” – gradually getting that institutional elephant to move in the direction one wants it to go. I, too, am invested in shepherding the elephant, but I’m near certain that it will move more quickly, and with less duress, if there is a well-defined path, and if the guiding prods are clear and consistent.

There may be no answer key, but there are some answers, and there are strategies to support these responses.  Examining how to make decisions under what type of conditions can make the monumental task of decision making easier.

“That Thing Where You Tell Us What We’re Good At”

At my Kenyon College commencement address, Lamar Alexander, the Secretary of Education under George H. W. Bush, quoted Alex Haley: “Find the good, and praise it.” At the time, it meant little to me. Although it is the only thing I remember from the entire speech, I have no idea why I remember it. I was not impressed by having Mr. Alexander as our speaker — he simply represented conservative politics to me. I was not excited about his role as Education Secretary, since I was definitely not going to become a teacher. Additionally, I was not a person who was naturally drawn to seeing the positive in things, so I didn’t think this phrase was even particularly applicable to me.

Except somehow it was. “Find the good and praise it.” I still remember it after all these years, and there is little that has impacted my teaching more. It seems like such a simple practice, and yet it is not nearly as easy as it sounds.

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They All Failed The Test. What Do I Do?

Dear Young Teacher,

The other day you asked me an important question, and I gave you a bad half-answer (or no answer at all, really.) Please accept my apology, and allow me to fully answer your question.

You asked me, essentially: “More than half of my students failed my test, what should I do?” You also gave me some additional information. It seemed important in the moment, and it sounded persuasive, or perhaps it was meant to bias me in one direction. You said, “they had enough time to study, “and you added that “they did not complete their work,” etc. I think I knew what you wanted me to say. And I choked.

Perhaps you offered that additional information about their lack of preparation as prevention against the scariest possible answer, which meant undoing tomorrow’s lesson plan, and starting from scratch.

More likely, you were speaking as you have heard your own teachers speak in the past. You wanted to send the same message you received as a student: hard work is important; the grade you got is the grade you earned.

And maybe your question was, “Am I teaching poorly? Am I doing a bad job?”

There is a right answer, actually several, and I did not give it, or any of them.

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The Long Game

-by Jack M. Jose

It was the end of the second Monday in March, the time of year when we are all so focused on spring break and just getting through, that we forget about the “long game” of creating confident, competent students. The Teacher:Teacher mentoring meeting had just begun. The plan is for veteran teachers to light the way with enthusiasm and optimism so new teachers feel supported. Today I looked around the table and I felt sympathy for George Washington examining his troops at Valley Forge. My teachers – ESPECIALLY the veterans – looked defeated and lost.

I made a critical error. I asked, “How’s it going?”

washington-valley-forge-granger

Did I mention? It was early March.

It is easy to forget this in the heart of winter, or even at the end of first quarter, when March means the promise of spring and a year soon coming to a close. In October, March looks like a promise.

However, March is a uniquely challenging time in schools.

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The 7 Gateways: The Search for Meaning and Purpose

At many schools, the last day of the school year tends to be kind of a wasted day – a day spent packing up boxes, watching a video, or talking about summer plans.  Attendance is often sparse as many students chose to begin their summer vacation a day early.

In Gamble’s middle school classrooms, however, the last day of school serves as both our fourth quarter cycle wrap-ups and our wrap-up for the year as a whole.  Rarely are students absent.

Last year, on the last day of school, my students wrapped up our “Change” cycle with a school-wide carnival fundraiser.  You can read about it here.  While the carnival was truly an amazing experience, holding it on the last day of school made me a bit worried.

Would we be able to clean up everything in time to hold our traditional end of the year ceremony?  Would we be able to capture students’ attention after such a high-energy experience?  Would we, as teachers, be able to shift the tone and focus of the day after the exhaustion of managing a carnival for several hours?  After all the fun and excitement, would students even be interested in sitting down for a closing circle?

As usual, I shouldn’t have worried.

Many students approached me throughout the day and asked questions like, “Are we going to have time for a closing?” “We are going to end in circle, right?” and “We’re not just going to dismiss from the carnival, are we?”

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Student-Led Conferences

Originally published February 8th, 2016.

-by Krista Taylor

Montessori philosophy uses the “Golden Triangle” to represent the strength and importance of the relationship between teachers, students, and parents, but Gamble, like many other urban schools, struggles with lower levels of parent involvement than we’d like.

It is important to remember that many parents experience anxiety about involvement in their child’s school. This may be because of negative school experiences they had themselves, worries that either their child or their parenting skills will be critiqued, or concerns about their ability to understand the academic instruction that is being provided.

I didn’t fully understand the depth of this tension until I attended my first parent-teacher conference in the role of a parent. Despite the many times I had sat on the teacher side of the table, and regardless that my child was doing well, and I understood what the conversation was going to be about, I was nervous.

What exactly would the teacher say about my child?

If my child is experiencing challenges, how will that reflect on me?

How can I both make a good impression and serve as an advocate for my child?

As a teacher, there are strategies to alleviate some of this discomfort, which then in turn, allows the parent or guardian to engage fully with school staff to support the academic and developmental growth of the child.

Proactive Conference Strategies

  • Begin each interaction with something positive about the child
  • Assume that the parent or guardian is doing the best that they can; however do not assume that they already know how to address concerns.
  • Do not label a child; rather describe the behavior you have observed
  • Open the door to further communication
  • Remember that you are teaching other people’s children; that every student you serve is someone’s child, and they have chosen to share this gift with you.

All schools hold parent-teacher conference nights. In Montessori programs, these look different. Our conferences are Student-Led Conferences, so called because the student leads the meeting. It is the student whose performance is being discussed; therefore the student is in charge of the conversation.

At Gamble, we require all students to hold these conferences at least once, and often twice, a year. This is part of the school contract that our students and parents sign upon enrollment. To manage this, we hold two conference nights each quarter, rather than the required one. Since students lead the conference, multiple conferences happen simultaneously, with teachers checking in at each table to provide information and clarification.

Templates guide students in running the conference. The templates vary according to program, teacher, and grade level, but generally include the following:

  • how to formally introduce your parents and teachers
  • preparing materials for presentation
  • identifying strengths
  • noting concerns
  • setting explicit goals for moving forward.

This process allows the child to self-report on how things are going at school, and to take responsibility both for what is going well, and for what is not. Additionally, when information is shared together, and everyone hears the same message at the same time, it creates a sense of collaboration between the student, the parent, and the teacher – strengthening that “Golden Triangle.”

It is yet another component of “what we do here,” and another way to develop a school culture of belonging. This is illustrated by the conference we had with Deon and his mother last spring.

Deon had been highly disruptive in the classroom – he had more than 40 logged disciplinary offenses for the year. This was a difficult conference to hold; it was challenging to find anything positive to say. It could easily have turned into a conflict, but because of the way we conduct conferences, the outcome was one of unified support. Deon’s mother ended our meeting with a request for a group hug, and with these powerful words, “We are all on the same team – Team Deon.”

Parents can be a teacher’s greatest allies. Every interaction a teacher has with students’ parents or guardians can serve as an opportunity to strengthen the relationship, even if the conversation is a difficult one.   Conference nights can be powerful for all parties involved; never miss an opportunity to connect with a child’s family, to be a member of that child’s “team.”

 

Rebuilding Your Ladder of Inference

A student leaves the room without permission, suddenly, and in the middle of direct instruction. The teacher, justifiably, exclaims to the class “Can you believe her nerve?” He makes a show of writing up her consequence in front of the class – while claiming it was the student who caused the interruption. The student returns to explain that she had left the room to help a teacher in the hallway who had dropped her papers and her coffee.

A non-teaching staff member reports to the principal that another student is refusing to go to class at the start of the day and is “giving me attitude.” The principal intercepts the girl in the hallway and she asks to use the phone to call her mother. When asked why, the student explains, “My mother did not come home last night. I need to call to see if she is okay.” After calling home and speaking with her mother, the student returns promptly to class.

A coach, upset at a student who had gotten in yet another argument with yet another teacher in the school, tells a student, “You don’t belong here.” Following a suspension, several interventions from school staff, parents, counselors, and a psychiatrist, the student proceeds to have a full semester free from any disciplinary action. When, after winter break, the student has another conflict, his first in months, the coach dismisses him, saying “I knew it.”

In each of these cases, a person in authority, and in a position to make or break an individual’s day or even their life, made a series of judgments about a student in their care.  And in each of these cases the person made a judgment about a student that was incorrect, or at least incomplete.

We know that any decision we make is based on a series of other decisions and underlying assumptions, beliefs, and facts. At each of these decision points, we are often left with only one resource for our decision-making: our own past experience and, perhaps more powerfully, our biases. In the moment, the teacher is unable to research or investigate, and instead must base a decision entirely on his or her own learning and experience. This is where cultural competence, kindness, and investments in personal relationships can combine to turn potential conflicts into learning experiences.

This series of inferences impacts every decision a person makes. It starts simply, and uncontroversially, from observable reality and facts. Peter Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline and Kegan and Lahey’s book Immunity to Change both describe the role of a “ladder of inference” that prevents a person from seeing anything without a certain bias.

In a presentation discussing the lessons in his book Conversational Capacity, Craig Weber described a situation where a police officer and an architect share the same taxi downtown. Driving through a neighborhood and seeing the same things, essentially, they draw very different conclusions about where they are. “It’s a dump,” proclaims the cop, who sees evidence of age and lack of care in the buildings. “It’s beautiful,” exclaims the architect, who sees the age and care taken to build these same structures years earlier. Same set of facts, different sets of experiences, very different conclusions.

At the bottom of the ladder is objective reality. In the case of the cop and the architect, they looked at the same buildings in the same part of town. This was reality and facts. From there, they started climbing the ladder. The age of the buildings then prompts them to climb the ladder. Perhaps they both focused on this same selected feature of the buildings. It is in their interpretation of reality that they then start to derive divergent views. The officer sees the age as a potential indicator for a less cared for part of town, while the architect sees strong “bones” of a building.

From here, each professional made assumptions based on their experience, and developed conclusions. The officer concluded it was a dump, and the drawer concluded it was beautiful.

In this example, the only “action” was an exclamation. In the world of daily instruction and education however, hundreds of tiny actions and reactions can result from a few beliefs. These actions can influence how much or little a student is pushed to be successful, or punished for breaking a rule.

It is hard to overcome these initial biases. It is even harder to overcome the assumptions and conclusions we reach based on these lower rungs, these hidden biases that we might not even know we have.

In the George Bernard Shaw classic play Pygmalion, a teacher, Professor Higgins instructs his student, Eliza, in the manners and language of their time. He promises his ability to educate her to the point where he could pass her off as “the Queen of Sheba” and haughtily claims, “I shall make a Duchess of this draggle-tailed guttersnipe”. After winning his bet with a friend that she could fool a room full of elites, he tells Eliza she is free to return to the gutter from where she came. She instead elopes with a gentleman of the same social class as her professor.

The role of education today is a bit more noble, and hopefully less class-driven than that. However, ultimately, the goal is to increase the ability of our students to make their way in the world through increased academic skills and – perhaps more importantly – their increased social skills.

It is from this work that the term “Pygmalion effect” originates. This effect relates to Professor Higgins’ inability to see that education has indeed transformed Eliza. More broadly applied, this is the inability of any person to see the transformation in another, or to ultimately always judge a person based on their first impression.

In the classroom, this can have positive or negative effects, depending on the initial opinion the teacher has of the pupil. Studies have repeatedly shown that teachers who have high expectations for their students, even as a result of being fed incorrectly positive information about the group, achieve high results with that group of students. Alternatively, students who have a low opinion of their students, get lower results.

It is evidence that, despite our best efforts, the Pygmalion effect happens to teachers too. Just like in Professor Higgins’ case, the irony is that it is teachers who should best understand the ability of an education to profoundly change a person to their core. And so often we do not.

In the examples at the start of this article, a teacher or other school employee makes a judgment about a student action that could have long-lasting negative effects on a student. In each case, an assumption was made and acted upon. In each case the child faced the disapproval and the potential of consequences from an adult. In one case, a child was told he did not belong in school, and even a period of prolonged improvement appeared to have no effect on an adult who seemed interested in proving an earlier opinion over working to improve a student.

We must be willing to be wrong in order to reach a student

As educators, we have to learn to prevent ourselves from climbing the ladder of inference. Or, short of abandoning our human nature, we must learn to use our ladder of inference to reach better results.

Our ladder of inference can be retrained to provide positive rather than negative outcomes.

In a situation similar to those that started this article, one teacher found herself needing to move a student from a talkative group. Three years earlier she had a similar situation with a similar student that turned into a disruptive confrontation in class when the student refused to move. This time, though, the teacher asked the student to step outside, and reminded him that he liked to sit alone at the table at the back of the room. She asked if this might be one of the times where he would do this to get away from a talkative table group, and he quietly agreed and chose to move.

Overcoming the ladder of inference in your own thinking requires discipline of thought.

  1. Assume the best / most positive explanation
  2. Ask questions to attack your own assumptions
    1. Ask each person involved what they did
    2. Ask each person why they did it – what was their intention
  3. Question your own conclusions by presenting them as questions to others
  4. Be willing to challenge your own beliefs
  5. Act on the facts, and let assumptions go without being acted upon

This feels like a lot. In reality, though, it is just the same series of steps you might take anyway. The only change is that you are practicing climbing a ladder of inference where the student gets the benefit of the doubt.

How important is that concept? So important it was enshrined in the Constitution of the United States of America, though unnamed, in the 5th Amendment.

As educators, we must always see the best interpretation of an act by a student. We must always provide a better reality for a student to live into. We must also grow in our ability to do this with other adults.

Finally, we must be encouraged by the words of Eliza Doolittle, when she returns at the end of Pygmalion to meet with Professor Higgins, and his partner in the experiment, Colonel Pickering.

“The difference between a lady and a flower girl isn’t how she behaves, it is how she is treated. I shall always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins because he always treats me as a flower girl and always will. But I know I can be a lady to you because you always treat me as a lady and always will.”

Seeing our students as we want them to be, and as how they want to be, is a powerful elixir.

Many years ago, as a second year teacher, I failed to get a student to remove his hat and was following him down the hall. He seemed impervious to my requests. Until, that is, he reached the door of a veteran teacher. She immediately summed up the situation and with a big smile on her face she embraced the student and called him by name. “Certainly you would not be wearing your hat indoors, would you?”

“No ma’am,” he demurred, awkwardly crooking his arm around her snug embrace to remove his hat.

She asked, without really asking, “Why don’t I hold on to your hat, and you and I can talk about it when you come back at the end of the day?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She let him go with a hearty, “I am glad you’re here today, the reading is at your desk and there is a writing prompt on the board.”

This student had sought to remove himself from the nuisance of correction from a teacher he did not know, but he walked into the arms, literally, of a teacher who expected more from him. She didn’t ignore or disregard his behavior at all. Instead of seeing the young man, as I did in the moment, as someone simply seeking to avoid consequences, she chose to see him as someone growing in his ability to regulate himself. She got the desired results, and ensured that there would be meaningful follow-up later, and she did it without a confrontation.

Senior Project

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In Senior Project, students explore questions that drive societal trends.

-by Jack M. Jose

Each spring, Senior Project Night is a proud night at Gamble Montessori. The school becomes the very public arena where our seniors’ projects, started a full year earlier, are seen in their entirety for the first time. Nervous students, in their Sunday best clothing, circle their tables and wring their hands, making small talk with their parents and mentors as the time arrives and space fills with curious guests. Senior Project Night is easily summed up, but difficult to fully understand. It is not just an artifact of a student’s research, or a short speech, but the culmination of years of education.  Students are really presenting themselves as fully prepared for the world beyond high school.

The recent full-length documentary film Most Likely to Succeed drew a lot of attention in the education world in early 2016 by shining a spotlight on a charter school with a unique structure. The movie portrayed High Tech High in San Diego as a nearly utopian vision of future-school, where students worked continuously throughout the year on a major culminating project.

The movie attracted a cult-like following among fans of hand-on school, including Montessori schools.  Groups of educators planned private screenings, wrote blogs, and posted rave reviews to Facebook that sometimes admittedly were posted before the authors even saw the movie. I was also caught up in the interest in the movie. I attended a screening at Xavier University in Cincinnati as part of their Montessori Lab School program in partnership with Cincinnati Public Schools.

The movie itself, however, was not really the main draw for educators like me. In fact, the film was prone to hyperbole and to overselling the possibility of this kind of future school sweeping the nation. At one point one of the protagonists speculates about the significance of the completion of his project by saying, “It will be the best day of my life.” As a member of the audience in a well-made documentary, it is true that I felt his excitement and agony. However, this felt a bit oversold.  Perhaps what had happened was life changing for him. This sense was heightened by his efforts being made public for all to see. The effort of completing this year-long project would have been an important event for this young man even without a documentarian filming his progress.

The primary attraction for most of us was that Most Likely to Succeed, by drawing attention to project-based learning, had the opportunity to change even more lives by helping to explain the impact that project-based learning can have on individual students.

The reality is, asking students to complete a major capstone project is not the provenance of some utopian future school. Project-based learning is not a new fad set to sweep the nation. Many schools have been doing a version of this for years, Gamble Montessori and our sister school, Clark Montessori, included. The work for senior project begins at the end of the junior year and ends on this night in May, just days before graduation.

Mary*, from the Gamble class of 2015, was a reserved student, who worked hard and was satisfied with the grades she received. She was well liked by her peers, but she was unlikely to speak up in a group larger than 2 or 3 of her close friends. When I first met her, she was transferring to Gamble Montessori from another local high school renowned for its academic rigor. Her initial reaction as I approached was to step behind her mother. She was not exactly shy, but rather, wary. Her academic and personal transformation while at Gamble was completely embodied in her senior project, which was an investigation of food production practices, food labeling laws, and the forces that drive our food consumption. She called it, simply, “The Ethics of Eating.”

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An exploration of the psychology of monogamy.

When I asked her in August of 2016 to describe a bit of her senior project experience, Mary’s response was effusive, more than a page and a half of single-spaced written commentary in a Word document. It was clear that it made a huge impact on her, and she was excited to talk about it.

Senior Project starts in the spring of the junior year, with students doing interest inventories and investigating questions in areas that spark their passions. They travel to the Cincinnati Public Library Main Branch and learn the basics of researching from the expert research librarians. While there, they locate several sources of information and start the process of reading the research and taking careful notes over the summer. The senior team provides support days periodically during that summer so students who are struggling can get back on the right path. Students have chosen a mind-bending range of topics, from fuel-efficient cars, prostitution in Cincinnati, animal welfare laws, and the existence of angels. Students must reach out to local experts in the field and find someone willing to mentor them, or at least to provide guidance showing that the student’s work was contributing to the larger conversation in that field.

The mentors have included the following:

  • Music Therapist from Melodic Connections
  • Attorney at Ohio Innocence Project
  • Chemical Dependency Counselor
  • African Drum Teacher
  • Children’s Transgender Clinic Social Worker
  • FBI Agent in Gang Task Force
  • Epidemiologist and former Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa
  • Sex Crimes Detective
  • Miami University Women’s Studies Professor
  • Professional photographer Charles Peterson
  • Local Business Owners
  • Local Activists from Black Lives Matter and other organizations

When the school year starts, the seniors’ schedule provides an additional bell that abuts their English and social studies bells but which is used primarily for senior project work. Mary explains the intense workload this way:

I personally spent so many hours on reading parts of books, whole books, articles, magazines, and blog posts.  I also watched documentary after documentary.  I watched every single one that was on Netflix (and there were surprisingly a lot) and then I watched more.  I loved my topic so it was easy to waste away a lot of hours digging deeper into the subject.  It is impossible to calculate how many hours I studied by myself but it was a lot.  The classroom provided 5 hours of work time each week and that was every week for most of the entire year … It took me about 15 hours to put my video together after I got all of the footage.  The footage happened on several different days and was then later combined into the final video at the end of the school year.  Talking to my mentor took up a lot of time too.  Basically, this project is very time consuming but that was expected and I enjoyed every moment of it.

Everything we do at Gamble should be aligned around creating this love of learning in a student. We set out to make a school that was safe for students – not just physically safe, but safe for them emotionally and educationally. This statement from a student expresses a sentiment that can never be measured on a standardized test. This is our Super Bowl win.  I hear in there the joy of learning. I hear her talking of hours spent happily exploring a fascinating idea. The Socratic method  of asking questions and digging ever deeper for answers drew her in, engaged her curiosity, and created a deep passion for a topic. Within that, we taught her the skills to follow future ideas that capture her attention. This is what every parent hopes for their child to experience at school – a passion for learning.

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An in-depth look at making America’s favorite possession – our cars – even better.

How was senior project different from other work she had done in school?

I had to contact professionals and ask for help, I had to talk face to face with strangers, I learned how to take advice from constructive criticisms and not be offended, and I had to kindly and intellectually retaliate to people who were challenging my ideas.  I think the most outstanding thing about senior project though, was that by the end I felt that it had made me a more confident, outgoing, and educated individual; and the best part was that I achieved all of that studying something I was passionate about.

Above are the words of scientific discourse, of intellectual engagement, the words of a person who is engaged in the pursuit of knowledge for the public good. To seek out ideas that challenge your current thinking is the heart of a strong and confident education. This is the “ready man” as described by Sir Francis Bacon and further explored by Samuel Johnson, who both assert that the “ready man” – the educated man ready to engage in leadership and intellectual discourse in his community – is made by conversation.

Challenges confront the students throughout the year. Occasionally a student will lose the passion for a topic, proclaiming it boring, or lose the thread of an argument. This often means they think they have run out of areas to research. Through a conference with his teachers, he will have to decide whether to revise the question, start over, or struggle through the roadblock. This is akin to a dead end in scientific inquiry, and the answer depends on the calendar and the individual. Is there time to start over? Is there any guarantee that the replacement question will prove more fruitful?

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A student demonstrates how he modified his audio system.

The senior team of teachers provides academic support in classes with a curriculum that overlaps some of the same ideas that students are exploring. Students writing about race find readings in psychology class that work as evidence for their research. (On the playground at lunch, older students will inevitably respond to statements about a person’s race with the quote, “Race is a social construct!”) Additionally, standard research format is taught and reinforced. One of our 2016 graduates, Syirra Roberts, reported to me that her freshman psychology teacher pulled her aside after three weeks of class and asked which high school Syirra had attended. Her test scores and classroom responses revealed a deep understanding of the topics being discussed, and her professor asked her to pass on his respect to her high school psychology teacher.

In thinking about Mary’s zeal for her topic when she delivered her speech, one could argue she put up a good show for her final grade. Was that passion real? My conversation with her occurred more than a year after graduation. Students often will tell the “whole truth” after a year away, feeling no need to dissemble in order to get a good grade or not hurt someone’s feelings. I think the answer is this: Embedded among Mary’s responses was this invitation extended to me: “If you haven’t ventured into answering the questions you have about where your food comes from (or if you don’t have questions but don’t consider yourself to be someone who knows much about the food industry) I highly encourage you to do so.  It is something that is so important and there are so many things that people don’t know that they should.” The passion is real. A year later, Mary has become an advocate for others to learn more about the food process.

I learned how to take advice … and not be offended, and I had to kindly and intellectually retaliate to people who were challenging my ideas.

This could just be an extended research paper, except for Senior Project Night. Each spring, mid-May, the seniors do not merely turn in the work to a teacher to anticipate a grade. Instead, they present their work to the community. Spread throughout the gym, library, and some adjacent classrooms, each senior commandeers a table and displays his or her work. There are required elements: a visual presentation showing what they learned, a research paper, a persuasive component, a spoken summary of their work along with the ability to respond to questions about their topic, and a service requirement. Students often display some of the reference material they cited, especially books they bought. Students are required to produce something that demonstrates a deeper understanding of what they have learned.  Sometimes it is a pamphlet providing important information about their topic, or it is information about a dog the student adopted and nursed back to health at a local shelter or in their own home.

The seniors’ parents are present, as are their mentors. Nearly the entire faculty drops by, as do parents from past years, and parents of younger students who are curious about the event. Dozens of students, especially juniors, make a point of attending. These guests are invited to not only sign in at each table, but also to offer feedback; this feedback then helps form a portion of the student’s final assessment.

This brings us back to that night. Students in their formal clothes, young men pulling at their collars and adjusting their ties, young ladies in dresses too formal for the typical school day. All nervously walking through the rooms, gathering the last of their materials, moving tables into place, calling a favorite aunt to give last-minute parking advice. And then it is show time.

Our seniors present their work in charts and graphs, pamphlets, tri-fold boards and every conceivable format. One year a student dressed in a yellow haz-mat suit, emerging sweaty but proud at the end of the evening. Students bring old tires and photographs. There is music and laughter, and quiet discussions as adults are confronted with the difficult topics tackled by their children. These questions have included the following:

  • Why is it that exotic dance/neo-burlesque, which is one of the top forms of entertainment in the world, is looked at as a degrading and/or a morally reprehensible profession for the women working in it?
  • When should transgender children transition socially and physically?
  • How does a mother’s age, mental state and lifestyle choices while pregnant affect how a baby develops in the first 6-8 weeks of life?
  • Is the death penalty an ethical punishment that reflects society’s views?
  • Why is it that people are unfairly treated based on the stigma of HIV/Aids?
  • Is ISIS really following Islamic Ideology?
  • Why do humans feel the need to be in a monogamous relationship?

Mary’s final presentation table included a crock pot of vegetarian chili (which was delicious and indistinguishable from traditional meat chili), a video of her presenting her findings, and a second video of “man on the street interviews” in downtown Cincinnati.

That’s right, the same girl who stepped behind her mother when it was time to meet her potential new principal, had gained the confidence to stop strangers on the street, ask them questions about the food they ate, and to provide on-the-spot answers while being videotaped. And here, on Senior Project Night, she confidently answered questions from every person who approached her table.

There is a moment during each Senior Project Night where I find myself drawn away from the tables and the students. I stand silent at a distance in each place our students are presenting; first in the gym, then in the library, and then in the large classroom. I allow myself to examine the whole scene in front of me as one picture. I take a long, deep breath. In this hive of activity, I hold each student momentarily in my gaze. I remember their arrival as timid 7th graders, or perhaps as anxious and wary high schoolers. I reflect on their struggles, and I note that, without exception, this night is a victory for each of them. Tonight they display the work that has been for them the hardest thing they ever imagined doing. Many admit to not believing they could do it at all. Here they are, each of them. Beautiful, proud, accomplished. I stop to see them as they are in this moment, resplendent and triumphant.

I often call moments like these “the teacher’s real payday,” and these are enough to fill the soul.

 

*Student’s name used with permission.

Neuroscience – Or How Teachers Become Tigers

This post was originally published in March of 2016.  

-by Krista Taylor

Saber-Tooth-TigerIt’s first bell Monday morning, and one of my students seems to have forgotten the procedures. Typically students enter my classroom, quickly settle, and begin working on the posted assignment, but on this day, Jason was out of his seat talking loudly with a peer.

“Jason, please have a seat and get started on the warm-up.”

“WHY YOU ALWAYS GOT SOMETHIN’ TO SAY TO ME?!?!”

Whoa. What just happened? I thought I was issuing a firm but respectful redirection, but Jason’s brain just perceived me as a saber-toothed tiger in the wilderness.

Humans are remarkable specimens of evolution. While our highly developed, pre-frontal cortex is uniquely human, our brains also retain the vestigial remains of our evolutionary ancestors, which have helped us to survive as a species.

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We are necessarily pre-disposed to scan our environment for threats – in essence, to seek out problems. This not only causes us to focus on the negative, it also requires us to determine whether to address concerns through the rational thought of the pre-frontal cortex, or through the “flight-or-fight” response of the reptilian brain. This determination is the job of the amygdala.

The problem is that the amygdala cannot always differentiate between imminent threats to life and limb — like a saber-toothed tiger, and modern day streScreen Shot 2016-02-21 at 8.46.38 PMssors — like tight deadlines, traffic jams, or teacher redirection. A stressed brain is flooded with chemicals in order to be physiologically and psychologically prepared for “fight or flight.”

People experiencing chronic stress have essentially had their brains hijacked. The increase in stress essentially places the brain on high-alert, causing it to potentially over-react to every concern. (Learn more here)

Unfortunately, chronic stress is far too common for many students in urban school settings. As educators, we must keep in mind that some of our students don’t know where they’re going to sleep that night, or how they are getting their next me#5al. They may rarely get enough rest due to caring for younger siblings, or simply being afraid to go to sleep at night. They may experience anxiety about not having appropriate school supplies, or the “right” clothes to wear. We often never know what it takes for our students to show up at school each day.

It is little wonder that chronically stressed children may respond to a simple redirection by shutting down or becoming disrespectful, disruptive, or even aggressive.  Their brains are flooded with stress hormones, which cause the unwitting teacher to suddenly become the saber-toothed tiger in the forest.

However, there are few situations in our modern-world where fleeing a situation, or responding to it with aggression, is in our best interest. Calming the amygdala is critical to the brain’s ability to resume executive functioning. A relaxed amygdala directs information to the pre-frontal cortex, so we can think clearly and make good decisions. This is true for adults and students alike. A calm classroom environment is essential for pre-disposing the brain for learning. The suggestions below can be helpful for establishing a classroom climate, which helps mitigate the impact of a stressed-out brain.

  • Be clear and explicit in what you want students to do
  • Use positive framing to correct behavior
  • Depersonalize correction, using anonymous, group correction wherever possible
  • Keep individual correction private
  • Regularly provide precise praise
    • Praise releases dopamine which improves learning and memory; conversely, criticism makes it harder to focus and learn
    • Use DLP – Describe what the student did, Label the action (helpful, generous, patient, industrious, etc), then provide Praise
    • Repeated praise reinforces positive behavior by strengthening neural pathways (In this same way, repeated criticism reinforces negative behavior)
  • Teach optimism, and provide regular opportunities to help students note what is going well
  • Provide instruction in mindfulness strategies
    • Taking a few deep breaths
    • Mental counting
    • Focusing on an image or a meaningful phrase
    • Practicing meditation
  • Don’t take student misbehavior personally; this will help you to stay calm and objective

These techniques help students to get their brains in the best possible state for learning to occur. Without them, all the time and energy a teacher spends crafting beautiful lesson plans may be wasted – no one can learn when there is a perceived saber-toothed tiger in the classroom!