The Gamble Montessori Great Lesson

-previously posted January 18, 2016 by Jack M. Jose

In reflection, there are many things that are unusual about this scene: The morning of the first day of our annual fall staff retreat, I was seated cross-legged on the floor in front of my staff, presenting the Gamble Great Lesson, and I was crying.

I would like to claim I never cry at work. It is, at least, unusual.

I wasn’t alone. Others were crying too. Crying partially because that next to last part of our story is exceptionally sad; the untimely death of two students in the same year deeply affected our school. Crying also because we needed to. In the moment of our most intense sorrow, or the series of endless moments of dealing with grieving students and parents, there simply had not been time to cry. And this time – the crying together – illustrated precisely why we need to tell the Gamble story over and over again, as it changes and grows.

Embedded deep in the Montessori philosophy, including student-directed learning , the Socratic method of questioning and the Adlerian concept of seminar, is an understanding that humans are naturally drawn to explore life’s great mysteries. We want to know the origins of the universe, the origins of life and human beings, how we started to communicate, and the origins of math. In these Montessori great lessons are the roots of the academic disciplines of science, history, reading and writing, and math. And those five stories already exist and are overtly taught to students as part of Montessori elementary philosophy.

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Adolescents deeply feel the need to belong and they have a yearning for deep connection. So just as there is a great lesson for each discipline, it is appropriate to create a story to help students (and staff) understand that they are part of something larger – in this case, a school with a short but powerful history. This was the genesis of the Gamble Great Lesson: if students and staff can understand why the school exists and our core values, and will accept our invitation to belong and make their mark in the school, everyone benefits. When a person feels deep connection to a place or an idea, when they feel they belong, it is a sort of magic. It is the basis of grit, and hard work, and victory … and vulnerability. It makes it safe to try, and safe to fail, and even safe to not fight.

Slide05At its core, the Angels and Superheroes blog exists to tell the story of a group of educators at one school, and their collective experiences finding success with individual students or with particular strategies or practices. The best stories are, after all, often about one person. “Stories help people feel acknowledged, connected, and less alone,” Annette Simmons asserts in her book Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins. She’s right. Only when we start talking about our individual work, our success and our failures, can we begin to see our common human experience.

Once we find our common ground, we are better prepared to learn from each other, challenge each other fearlessly, and grow professionally. If we stop telling our story, if we withdraw ourselves from the conversation, we shrivel into nothingness. No matter how strong our concern for our students, the reclusive teacher is no more than a gollum, praising a precious ring in the darkness – a ring that merely brings longevity to the one who owns it in secret.

But when we share our stories, or pass on the stories of others, we knit ourselves together in a tapestry of the history of education. This summer I had the opportunity to by taught by Martha McDermott. She is a raconteur of the first order, and – once I settled in past her deep Irish accent and could understand what she was saying – I realized that each of her vignettes from her past experience was pushing myself and the other educators in the room to understand deep truths. What was true for one teacher and one child, was true for the teacher-child relationship across time. This notion is made more poignant by recalling that she was taught by Claude Clairemont, who in turn was taught by Maria Montessori.

A story shortens the cord of time, and ties decades in a neat metaphorical bow, calling forth our past to be present.

When we started this process of telling our story, it felt artificial. It felt wrong. Not like bragging exactly, but like needless mythologizing. Krista encouraged me to write it, and I recall offering some resistance, and then just going along on a lark. I thought it would be an interesting mental exercise, and give me a chance to write a bit more creatively than lengthy emails to parents, or the weekly bulletin.

I thought it would be insignificant.

I was wrong.

And what better evidence than the tears in my employees’ faces – those who knew the students involved, and those who did not but nonetheless were heartbroken by the story that included the death of two students – and now includes another.

This story, however, is more than a collection of memorable events both negative and positive, though it has those too. It includes our story from the time we were still essentially just an idea, and is updated each year with events more significant or, in many cases, more emblematic of the community we have created. There are plenty of rich details.

Gamble Montessori was created in 2005, and I came to the school in 2009, so we can tell the story from the inception, as a proposal from some parents. It includes our slow growth over time, the stories of students and staff who shaped our character, and our academic successes. There are moments where we show how we became who we are. There are responses to implicit criticism of our school, and pre-emptive strikes against those who suggest that deep feeling should somehow be separate from the work we do as educators.

There is great joy. A first state championship was recently added to the story, and already our story contained a team that spent a quarter of a basketball game letting one beloved teammate score his only high school basket. And there is also deep sadness.

This is interesting to me: retelling the story creates the opposite reaction in me than what I would expect. When I tell the story again and again, instead of becoming routine or mundane, it gains almost mythological status. The associated emotions are heightened instead of dulled. I choke up sentences in advance of the lines that draw the same emotion from the listener.

Ralph Ellison said that when we touch deep sadness repeatedly, or “finger the jagged edge” as he memorably put it, we are not allowing it to pass or fade. This is the heart of the blues as a musical form, or as a written form exemplified by Ellison himself, or as a spoken form utilized by Colonel West. When we repeat a theme, especially one that carries deep emotion, instead of growing dull, it retains its sharp edge, it retains its ability to cut.

This is true of great happiness as well. Our remembered celebration allows us to celebrate again, and the triumph of one student over a challenging situation becomes the hope for triumph in every student.

You should work to tell the story of your school, or your classroom, or your team. And you should tell it at the start of every year.

Key Components of our Great Lesson

  • an invitation to see the school as someplace unique, and to enter the storytelling mindset
  • a brief history of key events in the school’s history
  • reference to key individuals whose contributions helped shape the history and character of the school
  • celebrating the students who have made a profound impact on the character of the school
  • recognition of moments of joy, triumph, sorrow, and loss
  • an invitation to make a mark on the school through individual contribution and to view the community through the lens of the stories that have been chosen

No video of the Gamble Creation Story exists. It is most powerful because it is told in person. However, in the summer of 2015 I had the opportunity to tell part of the Gamble Creation story at the Know Theatre in Cincinnati. It was an installment of the True____ Series called “TrueGamble”. You can view it here.

I don’t promise (or threaten) that crying is part of the process. That doesn’t demonstrate success or failure, exactly. However, in our case, the Gamble Great Lesson still had something to teach us: the act of telling our story is powerfully therapeutic and cathartic.

How To Use Smart Phones at School

Despite the zero-tolerance position taken by many educators, smart phones are not the enemy of education. However, incomplete or thoughtless smart phone policies can create tremendous division between teachers, administrators, and students, and even conflict among teachers.

The solution is not

… eliminate cell phones from the school, or

… eliminate phone restrictions entirely.

 

Smart phones can be windows into the world for our students. They can open new vistas of direct communication with experts from around the corner, or with other students from around the world. But smart phones create problems in schools and in the development of adolescents, and for these reasons educators must be intentional in their approach to setting policies.

Your principal’s phone.

Read moreHow To Use Smart Phones at School

Real-World Experiences: Solving Problems

-by Jack M. Jose

As the high school English teacher my first year at Gamble Montessori, I was able to put together a memorable and educational field experience

Recording in the "GarageBand" studio - a computer lab.
Recording in the “GarageBand” studio – a computer lab.

with the help of my co-teacher, Tracy Glick. This happened through perseverance and planning, and high student tolerance of changes as we adapted to obstacles.

This was a real-life experience in which students used the recording program GarageBand to create a song that met certain technical qualifications: it had to be 3 to 5 minutes in length, it had to use at least one original sound captured with a microphone, one sound played on an instrument, and one edited loop (pre-recorded sound available in GarageBand.) While some of the students were excited to record a song, several students admitted they joined my intersession because it was the only one they could afford.

Read moreReal-World Experiences: Solving Problems

A Dramatic Turn

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Teachers training to lead the JumpStart Theatre program.

In the 2015-16 school year, Gamble Montessori earned a chance to participate in a groundbreaking new theatre program through a competitive application process. The Educational Theatre Association (EdTA), a large national actors’ guild, had initiated a program called JumpStart. Designed to help schools develop drama and theater programs, JumpStart targets schools that have no drama program. They provide training for teachers, access to modified musical scores which are tagged with the label “Jr.” (e.g. Once on This Island, Jr., or Annie, Jr.), and a structure for staging your own middle school musical in the spring.

 In order to be selected for JumpStart, the school must first verify their dedication and determination to establishing an ongoing drama program. This is determined through interviews, where our responses to a series of questions were investigated to make sure we had the resources and initiative to accomplish the work. Once a school was selected – Gamble was one of three in this inaugural round – JumpStart provided support throughout the process.

 Following the successful staging of Once On This Island, Jr. at Gamble Montessori in the spring of 2016, I was asked to speak at a fundraising breakfast to a group of EdTA donors. Other speakers from EdTA spoke about how the program came about, and between each set of speakers a professionally produced video was shown. Each video featured snippets (like this one) from the training or the performances, and interviews with those involved, myself included. Below are my remarks, edited for clarity.

 

Read moreA Dramatic Turn

How Much “In Trouble” Is Too Much? (When a phone call home won’t help.)

 

I was mid-lesson when a knock at the classroom door interrupted my flow. Interruptions were not unusual, but instead of a security assistant asking to take a student to the office, I was surprised to see a man I did not know standing outside my door.

“Is Carlos Junior here?”

“Um, yeah, but I’m sort of in the middle of a lesson here, you are …?” I trailed off looking for some explanation of this visit. Something about the man was unkempt, off-center somehow. There was the oddness of a visitor I didn’t know, and the knock in the middle of a lesson, and yet I had an anxiety which I couldn’t exactly trace.

“I’m his father. I got a call about his grades.” Any apprehension I had at the time was relieved. It made sense. My team of teachers had made some calls to the homes of students who were struggling academically. Here we were, the next day, and a father was standing at my door. Pretty good response time, all things considered. He just didn’t call ahead for an appointment. Still, I wanted to check with Carlos.

I asked the man to wait a second in the hall and I pulled the door shut. I turned, planning to ask Carlos if this really was his father. Carlos was already three strides across the room towards me and the door. He had a look of resignation on his face.

“Hey, um, your dad …” I started.

“Yeah, I got this.” He walked into the hall and shut the door behind him. I resumed class.

A couple of sentences into the lesson, several students’ heads turned toward the door as a heavy thud resounded in the hall, followed by loud profanity from Carlos’ dad.

I quickly opened the door and stepped out. The man had grabbed Carlos’ shirt with both hands and had him pressed up against the wall across from my door. He was mumbling threateningly into Carlos’ face. I made out profanities and school-related words like ‘homework’ and ‘grades.’

“Sir, you can’t do that.” I put my hand on his shoulder, unsure what I was going to do next. He was several inches taller than me, and 40 pounds heavier. Without looking at me, he shrugged my hand away, leaned in, and spat a final threat at his son. He then stepped back and twisted his hands, throwing his son to the floor. Carlos slid on the floor to my right, his left hand on his cheek, then propped himself up with his right hand on the ground. His father was to my left, standing off-balance.

Now, in his struggle to maintain balance, I saw what I had missed earlier. He was drunk. As he took another step toward his son, cursing his poor grades, I stepped in between and the man bumped into me. Behind me, my student said, quietly, “Mr. Jose, you don’t have to…”

At the very moment when I realized I was going to be unable to hold him back, Carlos senior thought better of his actions and stopped leaning into me. He gave me a perfunctory pat on the shoulder that landed more like a shove. “There you go,” he said to me, but not taking his eyes off his son. “You won’t have any more trouble with him not doing homework.”

He spoke past me, “Isn’t that f—ing right, Carlos?”

Not waiting for an answer, he turned and walked down the hall.

Carlos wasn’t going to learn much English that day.

Violence at home rarely is this visible at school. However, incidents of violence are prevalent in American homes. The Centers for Disease Control recorded 683,000 reports of abuse or neglect against children in 2015, with more than 1,600 deaths[i] attributed to neglect or abuse that year. Related studies suggest that as many as 1 in every 4 children experience abuse or neglect at some point in their lifetime, indicating that many cases go unreported.

Abuse and neglect are two of the types of incidents that are collectively referred to as “ACEs”, or adverse childhood events. These experiences contribute to the likelihood of a series of negative outcomes for the individual involved. The negative outcomes can include increased chances of addictive and self-harming behaviors as well as physical conditions including heart and liver disease. Ultimately, an accumulation of ACEs correlates to an increased chance of early death. Needless to say, ACEs can interfere with a child’s learning and academic progress.

Tackling ACEs is the work of communities and schools together, and the focus of many books and blog posts already published and yet to come. There is a lot to learn, and many specific steps to be taken to address this growing body of knowledge.

However, individual teachers in their classrooms need strategies for handling situations that might trigger ACEs.

In that moment, in the hallway, I believed Carlos Senior was the enemy.

Later, it occurred to me that he was an ally – of sorts. With a phone call home, I could get Carlos swift and strong consequences, or more accurately, punishments, for his performance in class. Now even the threat of a phone call home might serve as a sort of motivation for him to improve his behavior in class.

This is the decision that some teachers are comfortable making. Hanging this phone call over a student’s head for misbehavior in class makes the threat of physical force a reality. It puts this tool “back in the belt” of a teacher; she can now wield force indirectly. Some teachers might find this power tempting.

However, teachers should never place a hand on a student to do anything other than to greet, console, or encourage them. Corporal punishment is against the law in Ohio (in public schools) per House Bill 1, passed in November 2009, and in 30 other states[ii], for sound moral and educational reasons. Physical consequences often sever, rather than strengthen, the relationship between child and caregiver. Worse, they muddy the real consequence of an action, leaving a child to guess what the adult might find to be important, rather than to understand the significance of a missed assignment or a single poor grade.

Teachers should not cause harm to students, even if they do it indirectly.

The question teachers have to answer is this: if you are reasonably certain that your phone call will lead to a child being hit, should you call? That is, what do you do when a phone call home will hurt, rather than help?

This question places a teacher in an almost impossible place. Parents are, of course, the most important figure in the life of a child. Decisions made by the parent are legally and unquestionably binding on the child, from a quick swat on the rear to the edge of what might be rightly considered physical and emotional abuse.

The relationship between a parent and a school is crucial to the success of the student. A parent who feels the school is supporting their child and providing a safe and rigorous learning environment, matched to the needs of their child, will go to great lengths to reinforce the schoolwork and schedule, and will be a crucial ally in the formal education of their child. Also, the parent needs the teacher as a partner in the growth, development, and socialization of the child. This is an important bond that must be strengthened by the teacher and administration.

So we must avoid the temptation as teachers to call the parent and use the parent’s disciplinary consequences as an extension of our own.

Outsourcing the consequence to the parent is similar to asking another teacher to provide the discipline in your classroom. This abdication of your authority sends an important message to the student that is the opposite of the intended message. It doesn’t say that you are strong, it says you are weak. Over-reliance on this tool will also send a message to the parent that you can’t manage your classroom or their child, and will make the parent more likely to believe their child when they blame the problems on the teacher instead of themselves.

On the other hand, we must also avoid the simplified response of refusing to call at all. This prevents the physical harm, of course, but it remains our professional obligation to communicate with parents. Balancing our obligation to call with the needs of the child is a challenge we must master.

Here are steps you can take in this situation to reduce the likelihood of a child being hit, emotionally abused, or neglected, while still reinforcing the parent/teacher/student triangle.

 

Establish clear and consistent classroom procedures

First, the teacher must work to develop a strong bond of communication and trust with the student. Clear and consistent processes in the classroom, communicated and reinforced multiple ways, will help a student feel comfortable with the routines. Setting a single way to hand in work, and a specific day and time to have the work completed, will increase chances of the work being completed and turned in on time and in the right way.

Additionally, the teacher must provide a way for students to make up work or catch up independently. This allows students to take ownership when the inevitable happens. Students will miss an assignment. A busy morning will leave a student at school without the work they already completed. This, in fact, happens to human beings. Having a fair and consistent way to address common human mistakes helps a student be confident in their ability to make up the missing work, and less likely to need parental intervention.

 

Establish clear and consistent communication with parents

It is easy to fall into the trap of only calling home when there is a specific behavioral or academic concern in the classroom. Phone calls home can be time-consuming and quite a chore, especially when everyone involved knows that the phone call is bad news.

A common solution suggested to teachers is to also make positive phone calls home.

That is the life of the educator. Doing more work didn’t fix the problem? Double the work! That should do it!

Sure, positive phone calls home are helpful in strengthening the triangle of parent, teacher, and student, but more work is not always the solution. Working smarter is the answer. Chances are, your school already offers lots of indirect ways to engage with families. Open house nights, ice cream socials, sporting events, and conference nights are part of the life of a typical school. Teachers are often required to be at these. Use these opportunities to ask questions of parents, just as you would a student who was new in your class. What do they do for a living? What do they like to do in their free time? What was their favorite class in school? Making a personal connection will come in handy when you need to leverage the relationship to deliver helpful information about their child.

 

Before involving the parent, talk with the child

Most often, big problems in the classroom start as small problems in the classroom. A failing grade is not caused by one missing assignment but several over time. The teacher’s patience is worn thin not by one misbehavior but by days of repeated disruptions or disobedience. It is wisest to first address this individually with the student.

Asking a student to identify the source of the problem is almost always the quickest way to a solution. Responses can range from an admission of wrongdoing, “I just didn’t finish my work last night,” to awareness of an emergency at home, “We were at the ER with my little brother until really late, and I didn’t get any homework done.” Sometimes these conversations reveal a student who is struggling to complete work independently and who needs advice on setting up a schedule, study area, and self-discipline.

Sometimes, as in the case of a student like Carlos, a parent has demonstrated a frustratingly limited approach to motivating their child. The teacher must, in this situation, develop a connection with the student in order to create an internal sense of motivation. Building a caring relationship, and smoothing the pathway to academic and personal success does not mean eliminating expectations. It means helping the child prioritize challenges in their life, put school as part of the solution, and take the necessary steps to navigate their precarious position.

 

When making a call home to address misbehavior, be very precise

Despite our work as a school to provide a positive vision for a child to grow into, I still have teachers approach me and say about a child, “He never …” Regardless of how that sentence ends, it is not true. This is the kind of sentence that drives a wedge between student, teacher, and parent. Rarely is the phone call home intended to fix a mortal flaw in a child’s character. The call that includes this sentence reinforces the idea that the teacher sees the child in a sort of irreparable state of unsuccessfulness. It can only go two ways from there, and both are counterproductive.

If the parent agrees that “He never…”, then the parent and teacher have formed a sort of belief system aligned against the growth and learning potential of the child. An adolescent is already predisposed to feeling attacked and to severing bonds from their parents, so this alliance will only reinforce ill feelings within the child, rather than fostering a sense of problem-solving and improvement.

If the parent disagrees with the statement, then the teacher finds herself on the wrong side of the growth equation, seemingly resolved to the idea that the child cannot learn. Being perceived by a parent as believing their child is unteachable or inherently problematic undermines the teacher-student relationship completely. The adolescent, so eager to prove her independence, will nonetheless cling tightly to a parent who is allied against a teacher and a bad grade. This develops in a child a skill set to avoid consequences and externalize control over grades and other life outcomes. This is completely counter-productive to the goal of education.

Instead, the home contact addressing poor performance should be very precise. This means that the observed behavior, be it failure to complete work, poor work quality, or disruptive or disobedient behavior, should be described within specific guidelines. The teacher should include a description of the observed behavior, when and where it occurred, and how many times. Then the effect of that misbehavior should be explained. Suppose that there have been seven homework assignments, and the student has not turned any of them in. Instead of saying, “he never does his homework,” it is more accurate to say, “we have had seven homework assignments, and he has turned none of them in. As a result, he currently has an ‘F’ in class.”

 

When making a negative call home, offer a specific solution

The call is not over when you have described the misbehavior. A parent might not know exactly what to do with this information, leaving them frustrated in their desire to help their child be successful. Leaving a solution fully in the hands of someone who does not understand the workings of your classroom and gradebook does not make sense. This is equivalent to your doctor saying, “Looks like you have a stone there, on your kidney. That’s going to be uncomfortable.” As the educator, it is important to tell the parent a specific solution to the misbehavior.

In the homework example, the teacher might continue, “as a result, I have assigned your child a detention with me Tuesday after school. He can make the assignment up there, and maybe finish Tuesday’s homework too.”

By providing a specific solution, the teacher makes sure the parent does not feel responsible for providing the consequence. No additional stress or responsibility, just information. It helps in this situation to be able to add information from the conversation with the student. “In fact, when I spoke with your son, he said he couldn’t stay after school on Wednesday because you work late that day, so he and I thought maybe he could stay Thursday with a different teacher.” The effective teacher prefers to accomplish this consequence in person with the student, to address the misbehavior and repair the relationship. However, this teacher makes exceptions and accommodations to allow the child to experience control and personal efficacy.

 

Help frame the student in a positive light in the parent’s eyes

Parents react so strongly to their child’s struggles because we identify closely with our children. We get angry when they struggle just as we celebrate when they succeed. School is a place where “winning” and “losing” is often framed – and perhaps accurately – as a metaphor for future success in life. No parent, not even a teacher or a principal, is above this identification with their own child. The stakes are breathtakingly high.

Calling a parent to indicate that their child is exhibiting signs of academic failure can trigger a strong reaction in the calmest parent. How much more so if the parent displays passionate reactions? This passion is not a weakness or a failing of the parent, and should not be regarded as such. This is an area to capitalize on.

Use each conversation to explain the strengths of their child. Seeing their child in a positive light prompts a reaction of pride and cooperation within the parent. They can see the good there too. Creating a shared vision for what is possible with their child is a powerful groundwork for a conversation.

Doing this over a series of conversations sets up the opportunity to walk a parent down from the edge of an intemperate response. If the parent accuses the child of being irresponsible or worse, the teacher can provide a different perspective. “Well, I agree that he should have done the work at home. His willingness to make up the work after school shows that he is growing in responsibility.” Without minimizing the concern about the misbehavior, a teacher can re-frame the frustration.

 

If violence is proposed as a solution, speak out against it.

Finally, the strongest step a teacher can take in this situation is to speak out against violence. If they offer, or threaten, to strike their child to create a change in their behavior, you have to advocate against this. In fact, teachers are mandated reporters of physical abuse; it is our legal obligation to protect students. Informing the parent that striking their child is unacceptable to you, and counterproductive to your shared goals, can possibly change their actions, and serve to make a child’s life remarkably better.

This is challenging. Sample phrases can lead you in a direction that is comfortable for you. One approach would be to state your preference that the punishment not be related to your call. “Mr. Wilson, I really wish you would not do that. I would hate to think that my call home got Carlos hit.” Or you can provide information, such as informing the parent, “You know, the reason they outlawed striking students in school is that they found that being hit actually harmed their academic performance.” Or simply repeat the solution you arrived at earlier. “Mr. Wilson, you know, we have already scheduled a make-up time. I know you are frustrated, but let’s see if that works.”

On occasion, it is necessary to make a stronger statement to the parent. In a personal conference, rather than a phone call, we can assert our position and our shared values. Life is precious. The child is precious. Hitting a child, or using profanity and psychological abuse as a motivator, devalues that child. It undermines our work as educators, and it uses fear as a motivator, which, as Kohlberg demonstrated is the least advanced reason to do a given action.

Ultimately, a parent will do the best they can do in a given situation. Giving them, and their children, the tools to find their way to success without resorting to abuse will lead to better results. And the evidence shows that making this change can lead to a longer and more successful life.

As teachers we are obligated to work in the best interests of our students. Tackling these sorts of problems makes the difference between teaching only the students who arrive ready, and making every student ready. When we persevere and solve these problems we distinguish ourselves, and send a message of faith in the students who most need to hear that message.

 

 

[i] Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accessed November 10, 2017, https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/childabuseandneglect/index.html .

[ii] Valerie Strauss, “19 States Still Allow Corporal Punishment in School,”  Washington Post, September 18, 2014, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2014/09/18/19-states-still-allow-corporal-punishment-in-school/?utm_term=.0bcca744cfa0 .

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.

word-cloud

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

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.

Read moreThey All Failed The Test. What Do I Do?

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.

Read moreThe Long Game

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.