Are You Handing Out Hidden Rewards?

We all know this child: The one who seems too precocious for the classroom and keeps getting “in trouble” again and again. She finds her way to other students’ work areas and draws them off task, each time with a plausible excuse. “He had a question, and I was trying to help.” She finds her way into the hall several times throughout the day. Sometimes on a hall pass she extends her trip to another classroom or to the office, or just to a completely different part of the school, on an errand that was not part of the reason for leaving the class indicated on the hall pass. We can see her now. A name (or two) has come to mind.

Perhaps she is, again and again, involved in a conflict. Or merely a witness to misbehavior, stopping in to the office and offering to report her version of events. She seems to need to be part of the action in some way. Perhaps she is constantly in time out, or in-school suspension, or the office of someone in the school who provides consequences. Many staff members know this child’s name, maybe all of them do, and most of them utter the syllables with a tone that conveys frustration and exhaustion.

She is frequently “in trouble,” a vague term that is akin to indicating that a child is “bad.” The term “in trouble” seems to mean, “about to receive a punishment for misbehavior.” It also seems to mean something like, “out of the classroom or off her regular schedule because of misbehavior.” That seems to perfectly describe this student we are holding in mind.

We then look sideways at this student and ask ourselves, “What is wrong with her?” We look at missing assignments, lost instructional time. “Doesn’t she want to do well in school? Doesn’t she understand what she is doing to her grades?”

It is baffling to us as educators. Many of us were good students who enjoyed school. After we became teachers, we worked hard to make our classrooms orderly and secure places where every student – especially this one – felt included and supported.  We constructed lesson plans with her in mind, referencing her favorite musicians, and selecting readings about people with a background like hers. We provide as much care as we can, and yet this child seeks constantly to be somewhere else. In spite of consequences. In spite of detentions and worse. In spite of always seeming to be “in trouble.”

But perhaps when we ask, “what is wrong with her?” our question is flawed. She is, after all, a child. She is, after all, behaving. She is acting in a certain way, contrary to our rules and expectations.  She is, some might say, misbehaving. What if the question is NOT “What is wrong with her” but is instead “What is right with her?” Behavior can be understood, and is often predictable within certain parameters. If she is behaving to get something she wants or needs, a primary driver of all behavior, we might be looking in the wrong place when, in order to identify the locus of the problem, we look at the student.

Perhaps the correct question is, “What is she receiving as a result of these misbehaviors?”

You have placed her in time out and you are discussing her poor choices. But what if she loves spending time with you?

It turns out, she may be receiving quite a lot. When our intent is to provide a consequence to a student, to discourage a misbehavior and provide a replacement behavior, we sometimes do the opposite. Behaviorists like Skinner say we can change behavior through negative stimuli, but what if the student does not see our reaction as negative at all. What if underneath the time out chair, there is something that the student sees as a gift or reward. In our hurry to move on to the next task, or out of our habits and past experiences, this reward is hidden from our sight, and maybe from her conscious sight as well.

Below are four of these hidden rewards, observed in schools and classrooms everywhere:

– special status or privileges

– fame / recognition among adults and students

– individual attention

– avoidance of work

 

Special status or privileges:

Ladene has been notorious in the school for years. She has been at the periphery or center of dozens of conflicts, and when she walks in to school in the morning, the look on her face can reveal what sort of day the whole classroom is about to have. Mrs. Crawford, well-intentioned staff member, has struck up a relationship with Ladene, befriending her, and offering her solace. She even allows her classroom to be used for meetings with Ladene and her counselor from outside of school, assigned by a social service agency. On these “bad days”, Mrs. Crawford directs Ladene into her room, calls the counselor, and then starts her own day, answering emails, monitoring the hallway, or making phone calls. A colleague was surprised one morning to find Ladene in the office pouring a cup of coffee. “It’s okay,” Ladene explained, “it is for Mrs. Crawford.”

Key features of special status include the student being asked to or allowed to participate in the work of the school when she is “in trouble.” Does someone in the office have this student stuff envelopes or sort mail to “give her something to do”? Is she asked to deliver messages or retrieve things from classrooms? In this case, Ladene had access to a part of the school typically reserved for teachers.

“What is the problem with this?” some may ask. “She is getting the attention she needs, and necessary counseling, and it is preventing interruptions in the classroom. She is additionally forming relationships with adults in the school. Isn’t this what we want for our students?”

Yes, we want the student to get support and to form appropriate relationships. It is fair to ask, however, whether doing these things during instructional time is an effective way for her to make the gains she needs. When will she make academic gains? When will she learn to self-moderate? Additionally, running an errand does not establish an appropriate relationship between an adult and a student in a school. Although Ladene saw it as “okay”, it was definitely not.

Ladene regularly finds herself running a quick errand for Mrs. Crawford, or in the teacher lounge, or using a teacher restroom as she waits for her counselor. All as a result of her inability or unwillingness to follow the rules and expectations in the school. The “hidden reward”, attributed to her as a lack of desire to do well in school, is actually a strong desire to belong. She is not misbehaving, she is behaving in a way that earns her special privileges. She gets to pour a coffee, or walk the halls announcing it is okay that she does not have a pass because she is running an errand for Mrs. Crawford. She has access to parts of the school others don’t, and while her classmates are struggling with geometry, she is overhearing important conversations about other students.

 

Recognition:

“Mr. Jose, you have to do something about Adrean. She is a mess. She is always in the hall, she never has a pass. She is always in trouble with someone.” This was my afternoon custodian. I was surprised that he knew the name of one of the students, but not really that it was this one. In class she is precocious, offering to answer certain questions and feigning disinterest in others – perhaps to cover deficits – and she is a generally a good student. One or two poor grades each quarter separated her from the honor roll. Teachers have become accustomed to her disruptive behavior. I sometimes wonder if some sign her hall pass because it generates a few minutes of calm in their classroom. Perhaps this is unfair.

Key symptoms of the “recognition” hidden reward is a student who is comfortable talking with the adults in the school, even those who are not her teachers. She knows all their names too. If she overhears a conversation involving a question for another adult, she will helpfully offer, “Oh, he is down in room 121. Want me to go get him?” She has a remarkable, and seemingly up-to-the-minute understanding of where everyone is in the school at a given moment that rivals any adult in the school.

What is the problem with this? Certainly we want our school to have a family feel, with adults and teachers in various roles familiar with each other. We even like to boast that we are “in each other’s business” to some extent, right? How can you be interdependent if you don’t know each other?

Adolescents are actively seeking their new adult persona. Crafting a persona that is gregarious is certainly acceptable and a good goal. However, there is a problem with negative attention. A student who relishes this persona, who covets any attention, even negative attention, will then fail to normalize appropriately, practicing misbehavior to get what she seeks. Practicing poor habits over time leads to poor outcomes, and a developed personality that prefers notoriety over accepted norms.

 

Individual attention:

Sarah seems to start every morning out by crying, but perhaps it is really only once every week or two. A small gaggle of girls cluster around her locker, or the door outside the office, where she is recounting a recent series of events that have rendered her incapable of attending class, or even at times coherent speech or even the ability to stand. Minutes later, under the supervision of a counselor or a sympathetic teacher, she seems composed, and fully recovered.

Over time, a pattern emerges. She breaks down, gets escorted to someone’s office, she marshals her forces and is able to recover only after a one-on-one conversation, preferably behind closed doors, with any of a number of adults in the building.

What is the problem with this? We want our students to have a network of adults to whom our students can turn when they are in trouble, and the occasional counselor visit is necessary for nearly everyone. Adolescents especially struggle with new extreme emotions – reactions to death, separation, breakups in relationships with trusted friends. These are trying times. However, seeking out this individual attention to the exclusion of developing normal relationships with teachers, cultivates a sense of learned helplessness. This person could develop into an adult who enters dependent and perhaps abusive relationships, as she tolerates increasing maltreatment in order to get the individualized attention she craves.

 

Avoidance of work:

Chris was making his third trip past the office during this passing bell. When asked – as the tardy bell rang – where he was supposed to be, he pointed back down the hall, in a direction that would mark his fourth trip past the office. Shortly after entering class, he was removed by the teacher for failing to follow directions. A tardy combined with a removal from class was a special kind of marker.

On this day, there was a program happening in class that was bound to make some of the students uncomfortable: a presentation on “sex ed.” The students had been prepared for this day primarily by being told it was happening. A range of adolescent responses had bubbled up. There was anxiety, eagerness to learn, curiosity, and embarrassment. By arriving late, then refusing to follow directions once he entered to the point where he was asked to leave, Chris avoided all of this. He would be unlikely to admit that it was intentional. While he will continue to pretend to be very knowledgeable in front of his friends on the subject of sex, we can be certain that he was brimming with important questions. These are questions that he does not have the answers to now, as he was not present to ask them.

These same types of behaviors become patterns in students who are not experiencing success in school. It is not rare to observe that rather than risk struggling and failing in front of their friends, some students will choose to misbehave. When asked about his poor grades, Chris or someone like him might say, “Sure, I can do it, but they keep suspending me.” Being afraid to fail has multiple negative effects on students.[1]

Other evidence of work avoidance is getting removed from the same subject regularly. A student may blame this on a personality clash with the teacher, perhaps stating “she is out to get me.” Work completion percentages indicating large amounts of missed work, and poor overall grades will help reveal the truth. Additionally, this student will occasionally shout out correct answers or raise his hand to participate. This may lure the teacher into thinking he has the skills to be successful. She may comment, “He is really smart but he is always in trouble.” This prompts a hidden reward within the hidden reward: now the disruptive and work-avoiding student gets the bonus of being labeled by the professional as “smart.” This allows him to double down on his claim that he is competent, but the victim of circumstances. However, if he is selecting when to participate, he is likely only getting involved when he is sure he knows the answer. He is rigging the game to appear as if he is mastering the content, when in fact he is only grasping bits and pieces. Tomorrow, rather than take that test, he is likely to be argumentative until he finds himself again removed from class.

The problem with this is obvious. The student who is constantly “in trouble” to avoid work and expectations is both disruptive to others and injurious to himself. How can anyone, Chris or his classmates, learn in a class where a student is willing to be disruptive in order to avoid having to struggle and learn?

You had to remove him from the room. But what if what he really wanted was to have an excuse for that poor test grade?

In her recent presentation at the AMS annual conference, P. Donohue Shortridge (pdonohueshortridge.com) reminded teachers and administrators of their role in dealing with misbehavior. She discussed “taking a wider view of conflict and disquiet” which she resolved into the notion of “Inner work – the transformation of the adult.” She implied that this second work was the transformation of the self. Much of what happens with a child is beyond our locus of control. As educators, we are in a privileged place to exert more control than others.  We must seek to identify how our actions and reactions are contributing to a situation. The teacher who provides hidden rewards to a student “in trouble” is working against the child by encouraging and rewarding behavior that separates the child from her work.

There are some steps the adult can take in order to determine if they are providing hidden rewards to students.

First, look for patterns in the misbehavior. These patterns can be revealed by looking at several metrics:

  • Are they happening at certain times of day? (yes? Maybe avoidance.)
  • Are they happening outside of class, during arrival, transitions, lunch, and dismissal? (Yes? Maybe individual attention or special status.)
  • Are they happening during a specific class or classes? (Yes? Maybe avoidance or individual attention.)
  • Are they happening with males or females only? (Yes? Maybe individual attention.)
  • Are the behaviors correlated with poor grades? (Yes? Maybe avoidance.)
  • Does the student have only one particular adult who can fix the problem? (Yes? Maybe individual attention or special status.)
  • Does the misbehavior continue when the student returns from the intervention? Yes? Maybe individual attention or special status.)

These patterns can help reveal which hidden rewards the child is receiving. If possible, create an intervention that short circuits the hidden reward. For instance, if the child is seeking to avoid work, a teacher might initiate some planned ignoring as the student exhibits low level misbehavior. When the child misbehaves, instead of immediately correcting him, the teacher might talk to the student as if he was doing what was asked, or the teacher might walk away and say, “I will return when you are ready to work.”

Another example, this one for students seeking individual attention, would be to build one-on-one time in to a student’s schedule as a standing item or as a reward for positive behavior, instead of a consequence for misbehavior. One student, Jasmine, desperately sought my attention at Friday Night School. I could get her to sit quietly for the first half by promising to sit beside her and work on one subject together for 15 minutes later in the session. It was clear that she sought one on one time with any adult in her life. It occurred to me that she might be willing to get a consequence just to get this individual time. I realized several students had this same need for individual attention and support. As a result, I offered to her – and to the whole school – the option of attending Friday Night School for support with academics rather than as a consequence, with the option of greater freedoms including use of earbuds and smart phones, and permission to leave whenever they were ready to leave. Jasmine received one more Friday Night School after I made this switch, and twice after that attended just for the academic support. Eventually she chose to start staying after school for help nights with a teacher. Either I was not as helpful as him, or perhaps she just wanted a better start to her weekend.

Second, an overarching approach to circumventing hidden rewards is to develop, and follow, a chart of progressive responses to misbehavior as a school. This includes escalating (and varied) consequences for misbehavior. So for disruption, a child might go to a preferred adult as a consequence once or twice, but then this would escalate to a time out in a separate room, a detention at lunch or after school, or other time outside of class time. By changing the consequence, a hidden reward does not have a chance to undermine your work with the student.

Third, it is important to develop a uniform personal approach to addressing possible misbehavior. When I encounter a student in the hallway during class time, I ask either, “May I see your note?” or “Where are you supposed to be?” Students provide a range of responses, but all of them give me a clue as to whether they are in the hallway with someone’s explicit permission or with a legitimate goal. While I enjoy the company of my students, my role during class time in the hall is to help them get back to class, not to be their friend. I have developed specific phrases and habits to address specific types of misbehavior, and I work hard not to vary from this script. In this way I am being fair and consistent as much as possible.

A final suggestion is to respect the work of other teachers and adults in the school. Trust that they have developed lesson plans that are valuable for the student. Trust that they have planned a response to misbehavior that is appropriate to her needs. You do this by prioritizing class and the work in the room over your own perceptions of what the student needs. Sure she has THAT look on her face again this morning, but swooping in to save her each time robs her of the chance to learn how to deal with those emotions. It means helping the student be dependent on you instead of herself.

Examine your practices. Are you providing hidden rewards for your students? How can you short circuit them?

Please put an example below so we can learn from each other.

 

[1] British Psychological Society (BPS). “Fear of failure from a young age affects attitude to learning.” ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/09/140921223559.htm (accessed March 13, 2017).

Angels and Superheroes Reader Survey

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Control in the Classroom: Letting Students Lead

I hadn’t been teaching very long before I discovered that my students were naturally boundary pushers who wanted the approval of the adults around them. I came to the conclusion that managing a classroom was a balance of subtle approvals and implicit corrections. Running a classroom, like the game “Operation”, took a pretty steady hand. Getting a group of naturally oppositional and quasi-autonomous adolescents through the Cincinnati Public Schools English curriculum, especially the independent reading requirement, was a challenge. Many of my students were disinterested in reading. Or at least they lacked the skill set and the resources to figure out how to pick an engaging new book, so picking six over the course of the year was a daunting task.

Worse yet, I had unwisely placed restrictions on the books they could choose – I told them it had to have a certain number of pages, and that I had to approve it (among things I considered very important at the time were reading level and font size.) I guess I was trying to prevent them from reading the Magic School Bus, or maybe I was concerned that students would try to bring in a stack of Dr. Seuss books and read them in a single sitting, thus completing their independent reading requirement.

So I got some of the things wrong. I know now that most young readers need a lot of help selecting a new book – recommendations from friends about the subject area, engaging main characters, and strong writing were necessary supports to get a non-reader into a new book. I also know now that even good readers routinely select books far easier than their current reading level. Readers, even good ones, don’t necessarily read or revisit easier books because they lack reading skills or as an attempt to skirt the rules, but because they find that particular book engaging. No reader wants to be at the “frustration” level in every book they read, and certainly young readers don’t want this.

But I got one thing right. Wanting to take advantage of the rebelliousness, I issued each student a photocopy of a list entitled “The 100 Most Commonly Banned Books in the US.” We talked about why books might get banned, either from communities or certain schools. We marveled that the Bible and the Quran were both on the list. Students leaned forward in their seats as they defended the right of authors to say whatever they wanted in a book, and a small cadre of black students defended the use of racist language in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. “Look, that’s probably what he called Jim. Jim didn’t seem to mind.” To a person they were shocked and a little outraged that an individual school, district, or town could simply ban a book.

And then, when they were at the height of the discussion, I reminded them of the reading requirement. And then I added, “I hope you will consider choosing your independent reading books from the most banned books list.” I pointed to a few that other students had enjoyed reading, including Go Ask Alice, The Outsiders, and The Chocolate War, and challenged my best readers to take on Brave New World, which explored themes of dystopia that matched our second semester theme.  We scratched a couple off the list however, including To Kill a Mockingbird, which we had already completed, and Of Mice and Men. I told them, “We are going to read that in class this spring.”

As I had hoped, students arrived the next Monday with their books, many checked out from the library instead of purchased. Some were excited to report that they had started reading already. One student expressed disappointment. “I read my whole book over the weekend, Mr. Jose: The Giver. I don’t know why it was banned. There’s nothing in there that’s bad.” In a brief exchange, I related why the themes of the book were controversial in some areas, and then I asked her to hold on to that idea, because the themes related so closely to our second semester work. (The next year, largely because of our conversation, I added the reading to my dystopia unit.)

What had I done? Sure, I had tapped into their inner rebel. I knew that would help. More importantly, though, I had given them choice. Students who have this kind of control in the classroom, to help drive the direction of their instruction, are far more likely to get engaged with their learning. Adolescents are naturally keen to push back against unreasonable limitations. I had given them a tacit permission to question authority, to doubt the justice in banning certain books, and to explore the boundaries that various communities placed on their students.

Giving students choice in the classroom is one way to let students lead.

Letting students lead means giving up some control in the classroom

At Edutopia, Rebecca Alber explores student choice in her article “5 Ways to Give Your Students More Voice and Choice” She proposes allowing students to lead their learning by expressing what they wanted to learn about, or having a team of students explore a topic they collectively found interesting. Structuring their interests to guide further learning, and thinking out loud to model how one topic builds on another help build skills that will serve a lifelong learner. Finally she suggests allowing students to have a voice in how their work will be graded.

George Couros, author of The Innovator’s Mindset, is an advocate for unleashing students’ creativity in the classroom. He regularly posts ways for educators to help students create content and take charge of aspects of their own education. His recent post on creating meaningful change highlighted an important part of the professional creative process. He asked the question, “What if every teacher tweeted one thing a day they did in their classroom to a school hashtag and took five minutes a day to read each others’ tweets? What would that do for learning and school culture?” He is asking, what if we were listening to each other?

We are asking, what if we were listening to our students?

Each year, for each sport, Gamble Montessori honors our senior athletes at our last home game for each sport. But eight years ago we had no tradition, we only had our first graduating class. Tracy Lynn proposed a senior night as she had seen the previous year, when we were combined with Clark Montessori for volleyball. But then she took it a step further. She encouraged us to honor the seniors from the visiting team as well. So as part of our ceremony that night, she received a flower, a miniature volleyball with her uniform number on it, and individual recognition. Our opponent’s seniors were also recognized individually and given a flower. A student showed us grace and courtesy by thinking of her opponents.

Our school started in 2005. That means our first groups of students had a lot of opportunities to impact the whole history of the school. So we helped them lead.  When we formed, we did not have a mascot and school colors. In fact, we were initially formed with a school name we would later officially change. Some teachers approached me and our LSDMC (a local school decision-making committee, empowered by the Board of Education to make key decisions regarding the school, including approving the budget and helping hire the principal) with their ideas for branding the school. “How often does a teacher get to choose their school’s mascot and colors?” they asked. It was clear in one case that the teacher had given the matter considerable thought, presenting me with color drawings of his intended mascot. I rejected it, politely, and turned the decision over to our students.

How often does a student get to choose her high school’s mascot and colors?

Our teachers led our first graduating class through a process of brainstorming and winnowing the choices, with the goal of selecting our permanent mascot and school colors. At the end of the process, the students returned a mascot proposal, and a surprise. Predictably, perhaps, they chose as our mascot a “Gator”. This made us alliteratively the Gamble Gators, and this also matched the mascot many of them had brought with them from our feeder elementary school, the Dater Gators.

The surprise came from letting our seniors lead: given the option to make the choice themselves as the first graduating class, they decided to share that privilege with their schoolmates. They asked me to let the entire school vote on our school colors. At our direction, they narrowed down the options to a ballot of five color choices, and planned a vote to take place the last week of school their junior year. They tallied the results and sealed them in an envelope, which I received minutes before stepping out in front of our entire school. The result was NOT what I would have chosen. And that is fine. The students chose purple and green. Purple and green we are.

In this way we allowed our students to lead in creating our school. There are other important places where we allow them to make important decisions about their own education each year.

As a requirement for graduation, our students must complete an immersive year-long investigation of a specific topic that is then presented to an audience of peers, parents, teachers, and other adults from the community. We call this simply senior project. Through a process of self-exploration and conversation with teachers and peers, a student derives his senior project topic late in his junior year. Compared to a traditional approach to selecting topics, where a teacher presents a list of topics students might encounter in a book (at least, that was how I used to do it in my classroom), students are more deeply engaged. Often students pick a topic that is not just of intellectual importance, but of deep personal relevance, exploring matters of faith, relationships, race and discrimination. Other times they pick a topic that is engaging to them and sustains them through hours of reading and research. This can create profound realizations that transcend the curriculum.

Having students lead means letting them work at the top of Bloom’s taxonomy.

In senior project students are provided choice in how to show mastery of a topic. This was a model I used in my own classroom, and was made easier, I am sure, by the fact that I taught English. Students could show mastery of certain aspects of a unit through writing an essay, of course, but successful student projects in my class included dioramas demonstrating mastery of aspects of setting, drawings depicting theme, or (one of my favorites) playlists of popular songs depicting characterization. Students were creating their own vision of how to show they had learned. This is profound, because a student who is asked to design her own assessment must not only think about the content, but think about how best to represent it. This is a cognitively demanding task, at the top of Bloom’s taxonomy – a combination of synthesis and evaluation.

Helping students take control of the classroom (or even make key school decisions) can be scary. It should be thought out, and intentional, and it is appropriate for the teacher to set parameters. There are aspects of the work that are rightly variables for students to manipulate, and there are some which must remain firmly the teacher’s call. Certainly boundaries of decency, fairness and inclusion, and demonstration of mastery remain the full responsibility of the adult guiding the learner.

Creating work within those boundaries can provide students opportunities to grow and claim meaningful ownership of their work and work process. This is the greatest learning we can structure for them. By calling out to their inner rebel, and setting them up to challenge themselves … and then rise to that challenge, we create lifelong learners.

Flow: Getting beyond gamification and badges in the classroom

It is that moment we live for as teachers. There is an energy in the room, students engaged in their work, with very little unfocused conversation, or perhaps no talking at all. Maybe students are eagerly calling the teacher over to examine their final product, or they are so immersed in their work that the teacher has become merely an observer. Or perhaps it is a classroom seminar, and the students are fascinated by the core question, pondering over possibilities. The bell rings. Students groan, “Aww, man, do we have to go?” “It’s that time already?”

It’s a narwhal moment. That is, a moment that exists, but is rarely seen in the factory model classroom where teachers hand out one assignment after the next, and then a bell rings to dismiss one group to make room for the next. Students have reached a state of optimal concentration. Immersed completely in their work, they have lost track of time, and perhaps even where they are. They are in a state that psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly (me’-hi chick-sent-me’-hi) calls “flow”.

It is not a rare phenomenon. Athletes, students, artists, and professionals of all sorts can experience this. Children can easily find this place when they are playing or learning a new skill. Young children paint with water and brushes on a summer sidewalk, see their art disappear, then trace and retrace the strokes of the brush. They perfect the moves with ever-circling, ever-delicate changes in how they hold the brush, or twisting the bristles with the angle of their wrist, each pass similar to the last, but slightly more perfect in the eyes of our budding expert. Then, suddenly, the motion mastered, they move on. Or less optimally, they are pulled away by parents with schedules too busy to allow  the perfection of brush strokes, and their flow is broken by the business of the life of their household.

These moments, when they occur in the classroom, leave educators energized for hours or even days. It provides a “teacher’s high” that is far more effective at creating an innate desire to teach than our paychecks.

Why are these narwhal moments of deep concentration, where a person is so in the flow that they lose track of time and space, so rare in the classroom? And how can we create this flow more readily? There is an answer, and the tools for creating a space where it happens more readily are in the hands of teachers.

A hot trend in classroom engagement these days is “gamification”. Hoping to capture or perhaps replicate the intense fascination some of our students have with video games – losing hours in front of screens mastering delicate moves of the hand and wrist not unlike our sidewalk artist above – teachers are turning to technology to help students keep score of their work and even earn awards called badges for completing assignments. These are artificial attempts to emulate the very real and reproducible experience of “flow”. Flow is not gamification, exactly, though it does involve bringing parameters to the classroom that we most commonly associate with gameplay.

In his book Flow, Csikszentmihaly gathers other people’s descriptions of what he calls “optimal experience”:

    a sense that one’s skills are adequate to cope with the challenges at hand, a goal-directed, rule-bound action system that provides clear clues as to how well one is performing. Concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems. Self-consciousness disappears, and the sense of time becomes distorted. (p. 97)

That is what we want in the classroom. So let’s break down that description he provides, and see what we can do in the classroom to make it happen.

 

A sense that one’s skills are adequate to cope with the challenges at hand.

The chart used to describe flow shows the y axis as the challenge, and the x axis as the learner’s skill level. As long as they are matched, a person can experience flow. Dancing, hitting a tennis ball, reading a book, learning an instrument, constructing a model – all activities are susceptible to this model. If the challenge outstrips the skill, a student becomes anxious, agitated or frustrated, and is likely to quit, or to certainly fall out of flow. If the task is too simple, and their skill level exceeds the challenge, the learner becomes bored or worse.

Matching the challenge to a student’s skill level increases the chances of achieving flow.

What can we do to match a student’s skill level with the challenges at hand? Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky described this area just beyond a person’s current skill set as their “zone of proximal development,” or ZPD (often pronounced “Zo-ped”). He describes a learner in this state as rapt in attention, and likely to even be verbalizing their thought process – talking out loud to guide themselves through a challenge. A student who is zo-pedalling their way through a challenging task looks a lot like a student in “flow”. Striving at the edge of their skill set, they are talking themselves through the finer points of the task. Vygotsky was observing one aspect of flow, life in the channel between anxiety where the challenge was too great for their skills, and ennui, where the challenge was too little to engage their interest.

So first, we have to know where a student is in regard to specific skills or objectives. Detailed testing, or close grading of student work, can provide the necessary level of insight.  Better than assessment, careful observation can give a teacher the clearest picture of a student’s development of targeted and necessary skills. In an era of online tests and automated grading and feedback, a clipboard and a well-constructed observation chart is still the most powerful observation tool available. A trained professional educator remains the most sophisticated data collection tool in our schools. With the information we gather, we can provide targeted coaching in the student’s ZPD. Is the student struggling with capitalization? Specific practice in capitalization is needed, not writing another 5 paragraph essay. Is the problem with borrowing numbers in subtraction? Let’s target those skills.

In The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle examines many examples of small geographical areas that suddenly produce a pool of great talent, with most of his examples coming in athletic talent. In each case, the practice that those athletes are doing is specific and targeted on key skills of a large puzzle. An example from his book is of a group of soccer players who mastered the intricate footwork to win one-on-one challenges on the field. They practiced by playing an indoor, small-room version of the game that depended entirely on mastering this close-action ball control. These athletes were playing a modified version of the game, working in their ZPD, while mastering a talent that can be a pivotal difference in a soccer match.

We can do this for our students, giving them practice on a skill they are mastering. We can also allow them to self-select work just “above” or just “below” where we think they are. They will almost always make the right decision for themselves, if we would let them. The Montessori method of instruction allows students access to shelfwork that is beautiful and engaging, and to which students can return again and again. A student may return to a beadboard to practice multiplication and understanding the relationships of groups of ten. Another may return to a book that is technically below their reading level, followed by their engagement and curiosity to investigate another aspect of the reading that is not determined by the book’

 

A goal-directed, rule-bound action system that provides clear clues as to how well one is performing

Well, one would think the modern classroom would be the very model of this description. We are asked to emphasize specific standards, micromanaging and micro-reporting results from testing with information on specific objectives and strands mastered. We have online gradebooks that allow the student and parent to peer inside the gradebook. Here one sees the making of a transparent classroom with everyone fully aware of each student’s strengths and weaknesses.

Unfortunately, that is not what has been created.

In too many cases, students report their homework as “read these pages”, or “do those problems.” Students still describe work as the task, and not the skill to be learned. More targeted work might ask students reading the same novel to complete different work based on their strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps one student would be asked to gather information about a specific character, to learn how the author used actions and dialogue to reveal their true nature, while another student would be examining similes and metaphors for their impact on the reader and what they revealed about the action of the book. This work could be scaffolded based on a student’s skill level, and in fact could be worded in such a way that students could do similar work in different novels as their skill level and reading level increased.

We have the tools to have this kind of conversation, and yet we too seldom have it. We have not done a good enough job drawing the students in to conversations about their progress acquiring specific skills. In fact, it is a conversation we often are ill-equipped to have.

This is a daunting task. Several years ago, Cincinnati Public Schools adopted an elementary grade card that reported not merely a letter grade for student performance, but instead gave parents a detailed list of skills and where their child was in mastering them. It came to its demise rather quickly, somewhere between the questions from the parents of “but how is my child really DOING?” and frustration with printing a 3 to 5 page report card for each child 8 times a year.

That was likely not the answer. So what about standardized test results?

For reasons entirely out of our control, our students are forced to sit through hours of standardized testing each year. If we then ignored the actual, meaningful data this effort generated, it would be us, and not the state, who was wasting the students’ time.

This year, Gamble Montessori looked closely at our AIR test (the current state graduation test) results at our instructional leadership team meeting. The scores were poor, in almost every measure. It was a shocking departure from years of success on the preceding tests, the PARCC (which had been discarded by the state after one year of use) and the Ohio Graduation Test. It was stomach-turning. However, we reasoned that since our students might likely be taking these tests for years to come, and would spend hours engaged, AND we got somewhat detailed strand information back, it made sense to focus on shoring up our weaknesses.

Guided by academic coaches, a specific role in Cincinnati Public Schools used to support principals in helping improve teaching in their building, we looked at our math and reading data. With additional input from our math and English teachers, we then chose a strand, a somewhat narrowed set of related standards, in which to focus. Then our teams built 90 day plans of action to focus on those areas, with a hope to see improvement in our next semester’s data.

This kind of conversation is becoming more common at Gamble and other schools.

“But Jack, this blog is ostensibly totally against standardized testing, and now you are talking about using test results to guide instruction.”

Much like I might use a student conflict to teach students about how to avoid conflict, there is no inherent crime in making the most of a bad situation. We are required to give the tests. We are evaluated by them. They determine a student’s qualification to graduate. Those things are true.

We can take the information provided and make it part of our dialogue. If we combined our close observations with our homework and classwork results, and the information from the tests, we could more clearly articulate where each student was and where they needed to be in every key strand. The result would be students with a clear understanding of our expectations. If we then made clear where they needed to get and gave them feedback and personalized work, the student would feel more supported, and less burdened, by homework.

Additionally, it doesn’t hurt to make acquiring specific standards a bit more fun. You can move a student’s ZPD further up the skill set by asking them to do something faster, or with fewer words, or in partners, or by evaluating others’ work with a rubric. Gamification attempts to meet this need, but can often do it in an awkward and inauthentic way, by tracking the number of attempts or minutes on task over time. Gamification seems to think that placing a screen in front of a student creates engagement, or that learning can only happen if the teacher can make something fun, or if a tangible reward is given at the end. This can be motivating to some, but the artificiality of it will quickly lose its luster for the student who is used to playing video games with plots developed by Hollywood screenwriters and animated with teams of technical artists. A teacher can certainly try this out as a way to engage students in a particular activity. The goal is to make the objectives clear to students, and provide a structured classroom environment where they have “clear clues” about how they are performing on the specific task and in the class overall. However, expecting this to stand in the place of authentic conversations about learning about topics of interest to students is short-sighted and damaging.

 

Concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems. Self-consciousness disappears, and the sense of time becomes distorted. 

Maria Montessori once described an optimal classroom experience of her own, exclaiming, “the students are now working as if I did not exist.” Her careful preparation of the classroom environment, filled with work that engaged students by meeting them just beyond their current capability, allowed this to happen. Eager students concentrating on number beads or parts of speech work, or perhaps carefully coloring an illuminated letter with precisely sharpened colored pencils, perhaps a student with her face wrenched in concentration … AND THEN A BELL RANG.

 

And everyone packed up and left.

The factory model has a way of doing that. Of pulling the rug out from under a teachable moment. There is great happiness in the narwhal moment of disappointment at the end of the bell. The hidden sorrow in the anecdote above, where interrupted students express surprise and shock that time has passed so quickly, is that the interruption happens at all.

You’re having a narwhal moment. Don’t you want more of them?

A teacher can help concentration happen by creating longer and longer blocks of productive work time in her classroom. Clear rules about entry and exit procedures are necessary. A student knowing where to put completed work, and how to silently request the teacher’s attention with work, is a student who can focus on developing in the standards.

There is no harm in taking days at the start of the year to teach these very discreet skills. How can a student request a bathroom pass without interrupting others? Where is the stapler? What do I do if the stapler is not where it should be? No such skill is too small to teach so a student may master the use of their time and space, without interrupting others.

Providing work that is repeated and familiar, such as specific rules for highlighting and notetaking for every text in every subject, prevent confusion about how to interact with each new text. Utilizing blocks of time for extended big work, like writing and editing, or silent reading, with provisions for silent transition into other work as a child’s individual concentration shifts, can help stimulate concentration.

Many aspects of the conditions of flow in the classroom are within a teacher’s purview. How we communicate the work and allow for students to articulate it, and how we match specific tasks to a student’s level of performance are choices we make each day while planning lessons. How to structure feedback and goals and rules are part of our annual planning for opening days, starts of new semesters, quarters, or even the day after midterms.

There is an interesting caveat to all this talk of what is possible. Csikszentmihalyi also described conditions under which a person will be unable to achieve flow. Clearly from the examples, a student who is challenged beyond their ability will become anxious, and be unable to perform well at all. A child who is asked to do a task that is too simple for them, will fall into boredom or ennui, and quickly seek activities to become a distraction to himself and others in the classroom. (Being too challenged can mask itself as ennui. Beware the student and parent who assert that disruptive behavior is happening because the child is too smart for the work they have been given. This allegation is often made without either parent or student providing any proof that the work can be completed at an acceptable level!)

Flow can never be achieved, he argues, in a person who is self-conscious, self-centered, or experiencing anomie (a breakdown in the connection with societal values) or alienation. In these cases, a child must be brought back into a sense of community. Only here, where a student feels a sense of belonging to the larger group, can he experience the blend of challenge and success that makes time disappear.

You can conquer that by…   AND THEN A BELL RANG.

We don’t play dodgeball in PE (and it’s not why you think)

A dodgeball

Gamble Montessori, as a new school, established a varsity football program relatively recently. Then we came in second in our first 3 football games. But this hot Saturday in early September, we had a good feeling. We had 24 young men on the team, which meant that though many of our best players would spend the balmy afternoon playing offense AND defense, we would have the chance to do some substituting. Having this few students always put us at a disadvantage against our opponents from bigger schools, but today we were playing a rival from a nearby program, a K-12 school from CPS: Oyler High School. They had just about the same number of players, which meant they would be as tired as us in the 4th quarter. So instead of watching a 4th quarter lead evaporate, as it had in 2 of our first 3 losses, there was a chance that we could build a lead and then win a war of attrition under the hot autumn sun.

Our Gamble Gators team did not have a lot of amenities. The coaches and players themselves carried much of the equipment onto the field, much of which had been borrowed or donated to the program: a parent-purchased kicking tee, two water coolers borrowed from the school’s camping supplies, and 6 Gatorade squirt bottles donated by a vending company rounded out our sideline possessions. At least today we were wearing matching uniforms in the school colors of green, purple, and black. This was a step up from the pre-season, when the local newspaper ran pictures from summer practice with our players in borrowed uniforms of brown and white, the word “BEARS” emblazoned across the front of each pictured jersey. A couple of fathers who had volunteered to help with the team, perhaps discouraged by our slow start, had other plans develop for this Saturday afternoon, and I soon realized that we had no waterboy on the sideline. So I volunteered for the job.

Not the Bears.

It is a unique  and humorous experience – observing the look on a player’s face when he realizes the waterboy who just arrived in the huddle is his principal.

In addition to having the authority to direct the young men to take a drink they might otherwise refuse, being waterboy meant I was present on the field in a unique way. I had access I did not usually get – even as the principal of the school – access that is unique to the sport. Only the coaches and players themselves were closer to the action. This was how I got to see Jordan Sheffeld up close. Jordan was an exceptional athlete. A strong lineman with unusual agility, he could keep his balance well when blocking and tackling. On most teams, the quarterback was the onfield leader, but our young program had a freshman in that position, and so Jordan, who played offense and defense on most downs, was a team captain. He was the one who calmed down players in the huddle, and he could adjust the players based on the call that came in from the sidelines. This was part, but not all, of how he won the game for us that day.

Long story short, the game went just as described above. We got out to an early lead. A strong defensive stand in the middle of the final quarter meant we could run out the clock and seal our first ever program win.

Coach West (right) moments after a Gatorade shower celebrating the Gamble Gators first football win.

I spoke to him Monday after the game. “Jordan, you were remarkable.”

“Thanks, Mr. Jose.”

“But do you know what you did?”

“Well, we won. So, I guess that was what I was thinking you were talking about.” He gave me a quizzical look and paused digging in his locker. “What are YOU talking about?”

“Well, you know that guy who lined up across from you?” He said he did, and supplied his uniform number and, to my surprise, his name. He explained that they had played basketball and football together growing up. I continued, “Well, you dominated him.”

“Yes, I suppose I did,” he grinned at being recognized. In fact, on several plays he recorded what is called in football a “pancake.” It is a descriptive phrase for how the guy you blocked looked after the block: flat on his back, like a pancake.

“But it wasn’t just knocking him down. It was that after each play, you picked him back up. And then, on the next snap, you knocked him down. One time when I ran out there, I swear you told him, ‘It’s okay, you’ll get me next time.’”

“Um, yeah, I remember telling him that.” He smiled at the subtle taunt. “I told him some other stuff too.”

“But then you picked him up again. You know what you did?” I waited till he looked me in the eye. “He didn’t put up much of a fight in the 4th quarter, did he? It’s because you broke his spirit. With good sportsmanship, and a dominant physical performance, you defeated his desire to beat you.

“I would say that you provided about the most Montessori performance one could ask for – you did your job perfectly, for the whole game, and you picked up your opponent after each play, then went out to beat him again.”

Montessori education is occasionally parodied as the refuge of pampered upper middle class children who clamor for participation medals after lacing their shoes. These imagined Montessori children become weak-kneed in the face of competition, and they blanch at the prospect of hard work.

In fact, the Montessori athlete is much like any other. Reveling in a sense of personal growth and self-development, Montessori athletes understand that practice is an important part of successful performance, and they embrace challenges in team and individual situations. They are not magical thinkers who only find satisfaction in winning, and thus seek out ways to be seen as winning without effort. Instead, they are hard workers who understand that competition with others is an important part of the athletic equation. In fact, it is often through competition with others that some of us can discover the inner drive to be our best selves. They seek out tests of their strength and speed and acumen. They challenge the clock, and set personal goals for weight lifted or the accuracy of a throw, or the excellence of an intended outcome.

The untested or unchallenged student athlete might believe wrongly that she is the best at an activity merely because she feels an intense sense of freedom within the activity itself. The Montessori child has moved beyond defining her performance solely on the basis of how it feels in the moment or solely on the basis of whether the work produces a victory. I think we all, at some point as children, believed we were the fastest runners in the world. Our children call us over, breathless, to watch them run across the yard at what seems to us to be an entirely ordinary child’s speed, then they insist to us that they are practically flying, and look to us for confirmation. What can we say? “Yes, indeed, that WAS very fast!” And our parents relate that we, too, repeated this ritual in our youth. So only when our children line up next to our neighbors’ children and see that one or two of them are far faster, do they begin to understand that running fast is a gift and a blessing, but running faster requires preparation and skill.

An athlete lines up a free throw.

Most sports confer this concept adequately, but some sports do it better than others. For instance, runners in cross country and track, while they run against each other and there is a winner in the sport, are also always running against their own best times and the conditions of the track. Additionally, a runner can compete against published record times and a personal best time; in a sense, any runner can “compete” against the very best runners in their city, county, state, or the world, by reviewing posted times. In these sports, as students enter any competition with any number of opponents, there are two goals ever in mind, both require individual improvement: beat the fastest person, achieve my fastest personal time.

Some team sports develop this duality better than others.

Football exemplifies a team sport with many factors that complicate individual improvement. In this most recent season, 2016, our football team found itself on both sides of lopsided games. We won an important rivalry by 35 points early in the season. Five weeks later we lost by nearly 40 points. Had we gotten weaker? Slower? Less skilled? Had we truly regressed the comparative equivalent of 80 points? While the competition on the field offered each player the chance to practice his skills and improve himself in each game, the physical size and number of players on one football team can serve to mask the personal growth or regression. The tremendous advantage of size is compounded over the course of four quarters, in some cases making it less about personal improvement and more about personal safety. In each lopsided game, the smaller team found itself physically outmatched, and unable to improve in their skills. A taller basketball team starts with an advantage that is not unsurmountable, but which noticeably impacts the game at each end of the court on every possession.

Gamble teachers play a game at our summer retreat.

It is important to note that the fields and courts used by our athletics teams are not the place where MOST of our students experience athletics at school. We require EVERY student to take physical education. In these physical education classes, our goal should be to encourage every child to understand what it means to be fit, and to seek out ways to, among other things, recognize “the value of physical activity for health, enjoyment, challenge, self-expression and/or social interaction.”[1] Part of this is teaching students the rules and spirit of different sports. And, of course, that should be done in a way that promotes health, safety, and a sense of community. One uncontroversial adjustment made at most (if not all) schools is teaching flag football or “touch” football (where one or two hands on an opponent with the ball ends the play). Of course we make adjustments to make that sport safer. In other sports we make minor variations to increase participation as well, such as creating balanced teams and modifying rules to increase enjoyment among students who are less athletic. (Unfortunately, these sometimes are categorized as “girls’ rules” in some places, which sends distressing messages to our most athletic girls and our least athletic boys.)

We SHOULD make adjustments to these sports to make them more inclusive in physical education class. We should support and encourage our students to think about how to make the adjustments to create more inclusive but still cooperative games that they play on the playground and in the neighborhood. Cooperative game guru Karl Rohnke, author of Silver Bullets, a collection of cooperative games, provides a rationale for adjusting games on the fly: what is the point of a game if it is only fun for a few? Another pair of games enthusiasts, Adam Fletcher and Kari Kunst, introduce their article with a quote that suggests the existence of two kinds of games, the finite one, with fixed rules and a winner and loser, and the infinite one, which features changing rules and an intent to never end.[2]

Now, about dodgeball.

When I directed my physical education teacher to stop playing dodgeball in class, some of my students were vocally upset. Others were supportive. I was confident that I had taken an important stand for what is good about athletics, and what can be bad about it. My decision was not based on stories of injuries and lawsuits. I was aware of some of them, like the Bronx school where an ill-advised indoor recess dodgeball game resulted in painful and expensive broken orthodontia from a soccer ball that struck a student who had opted out of the game. I had heard myriad stories about broken bones and bloody noses, but at the time I was not aware of state-wide bans in summer camps in New Hampshire and New York. My decision was not even, or at least not entirely, driven by the regular appearance of students in my office who had been wounded physically during dodgeball, or who had been wounded emotionally by the prospect of having things thrown at them by more athletic and more aggressive students.

No, it was primarily that dodgeball differs significantly from traditional team sports. Unlike basketball or soccer, there is little opportunity for actual strategy or running designed plays. Unlike individual sports, there is no measure for judging whether you have improved or even mastered a skill. In short, there seemed no argument for it. There were better ways to practice throwing for accuracy, and running, and even dodging. Kick ball for instance offered a chance to do these things, with the opportunity for respite at the next base, or the chance to score a run and assist the team. Meanwhile, in dodge ball, instead of providing ongoing support and contributing to the group’s success, your team is slowly whittled away.  The acceptable athletics strategy of attacking another team’s weakness means, in dodgeball, that the least athletic student starts the game being targeted by one or more of the best athletes on the other side of the line, each throwing balls in his or her direction. This player then spends the bulk of the game, perhaps dazed by being struck with a ball to the head or face, sitting on the sidelines, ostensibly rooting for their team.

It is widely accepted that there are good and bad kinds of competition. I believe that dodgeball is inherently structured to emphasize the potential negative aspects of competitive games. It defies modification. Even as a fifth grader, I recognized the irony in the rule added by my PE teacher, who announced that if you got hit in the face you were not out. He meant to encourage us to throw balls at our classmates’ bodies, but the practical application was that moments after you got hit in the face, your teacher announced that you were still a viable target, and a dazed and embarrassed target at that.

In immediate response to the ban, students posted a petition in the hallway outside the gym. Thoughtfully, they included a few caveats for how they would conduct themselves when they played the game in the future. For instance, they suggested that students who were uncomfortable could just opt out. I spoke with the petitioners. I remember vividly our discussion, which focused on this “opt out” clause. Students could choose not to play without penalty. During the conversation, it was acknowledged by several people that it did not make sense to play a game where, by the act of playing it, several students would feel targeted and would instead choose to sit on the sidelines. That concept certainly violated our core value of community, for what is the value of a game if not everyone can enjoy it? If at the outset of the game, we knew that some students would be permitted to not participate? The very act of choosing to play dodgeball would then become exclusionary. One of the students who had signed the petition had privately expressed a concern about the nature of the game to me. I realized that in the conversation, I had to be careful not to expose that she had, in a sense, taken both sides of the argument. She never revealed to her friends her opposition, but, speaking as a signatory of the petition, she provided valuable arguments against dodgeball. She said to the group that the argument about including everyone was a valid point she had not considered.

After a few weeks, the petition was taken down.

Recently, I was approached by a coach who wanted to run a dodgeball tournament as a fundraiser for our program. He approached me as if he had been sent on a fool’s errand. “I heard you’re probably going to say ‘no’ to this request, but I was wondering if we could have a dodgeball tournament?”

“People sign up? Their own choice?”

“Yeah, they pay to enter,” he explained. “We have a small prize for the winner.”

I thought for a second. I considered how this request was different than in physical education class. A group of individuals will self-select to enter this tournament as a group, understanding the rules. Each would opt in because of the cause, or an interest in the game and playing with friends. They will have chosen to take the risk, and would not see it as anything other than fun if they themselves got hit and eliminated from gameplay.

“Sure. Sounds like fun.” My reservation was not about dodgeball the activity, but was instead about requiring children in physical education class to play a game that held so much potential for bad outcomes.

The Gators boys basketball team pauses for a picture following their first ever tournament game.

So, how can we work to make sure all of our students get to participate in our physical education games, and the games we play on field experiences or as community-building activities?

 

Ask yourself these questions, in this order:

  1. Does this include everyone?
  2. Is everyone getting an opportunity to contribute meaningfully to the team / group?
  3. Does it promote physical activity and teach specific skills? Are the roles defined?
  4. Is it fun? (Variations of this question: when someone is “out”, is it fair and clear?
  5. How can I change it so the answers above are all “yes”? (OR At what point in the game can I ask students to change it so the answers above are all “yes”?)

When we teach students to compete in this way, instead of watering down their skills or teaching them that competition is without value, we call out their highest instincts for achievement.

One Monday night last school year, the Gamble varsity volleyball team beat Riverview East in The Swamp (as we call our home field. We are, after all, Gators).  The final point of the 3-game sweep was a smash by Carrie that brought the raucous crowd to their feet.  It was exciting!  However, the best moment of the match for me came 7 points earlier.

On that point, a Gamble player struck the ball, and it landed on the opponent’s line for a point, according to all who saw it.  The volunteer line judge, a Gamble student, flapped his flag indecisively.  Riverview questioned the call and one referee went over to question the linesman, who indicated that he had moved the flag because he was unsure what to do when the ball hit the line.  The referee called out “Gamble point.” However, our girls were already shouting to the head referee, “We will play the point over.”  Just like that, they gave away a point.  And 7 points later, they won anyway.

Having a faith in playing the game the right way, and responding appropriately to confusion over a call, demonstrates the kind of character we are attempting to instill in each of our students.  Applying it during a crucial game against our oldest rival takes respect for self and respect for the game. And it does not cheapen our performance or weaken our skills.

 

[1] National Standards for K-12 Physical Education Copyright 2013, SHAPE America –Society of Health and Physical Educators, 1900 Association Drive, Reston, VA 20191, www.shapeamerica.org.

[2] “Why Play Games When There is Work to Do?”, Fletcher, A., Freechild Newsletter, accessed via the internet at http://campsource.pbworks.com/f/CooperativeGames.pdf 2017.1.15

A Dramatic Turn

635986590976708255-jumpstart-bootcamp-1015-3281
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.

jstbfast
Watching a video at the breakfast.

Good morning.

You probably know me from having seen me on this wall in that last video.   I’ll be available for autographs afterward.

When they called and asked me, “Would you like to speak to a group of potential donors about …” I said, “Yes.”

I am a huge proponent of the Educational Theatre Association’s JumpStart Program. I asked, “What would you like me to talk about?  Would you like me to talk about my staff and how amazing it was that three teachers, a paraprofessional and a volunteer from the community got together and gave all this time to help these students? And how they split between them a very, very modest stipend?” And they said, “No, no.”

So I’m not here to talk about that.

I said, “You know, I can talk about how the program has grown. How the first year we only had 10 or 11 auditions and this year we had 30; and how the number of parents quadrupled from the first meeting to this year’s meeting and what enthusiasm has been generated in the school.”

They said, “No don’t say anything about that, we will take care of that piece.”

So I scratched that.

And I offered, “You know, I could talk about those moments in the performance where I cried.  One was the moment where the students, a dozen of them, were on the stage. And they did this dance number, and they were all doing their own thing, and it was very clear that they were all hitting their marks and they were looking at each other. You could see this confidence and trust that only comes from working together as a team and a group. Or I could talk about the moment where they said, in a very mature way, about how this female character was ‘healing’ this male character,” (with both hands I did air quotes around the word ‘healing’.) “And how middle school students pulled off a very mature joke and it was funny. And because it was funny in just the right way, I cried.”

And they said, “No, don’t tell that story. We have videos.”

So I’m not here to talk about any of those things.

jstbfastjack
Jack speaking at the fundraising breakfast.

I want to talk about the students.

I can just tell you, first of all, I think you already heard evidence of what I am about to tell you in the comments from the speakers before me, and in the video with student interviews that we watched together. Obviously the students were affected by the experience. And these students were a cross section of our school.  At Gamble, about 75% of our students are eligible for free or reduced price lunch.  That means that many of our students live in poverty, essentially.  We provide every student a free breakfast and a free lunch at school every day.  Many of them need that. Many of them don’t.  For a few of our students that’s the only meal that they eat.

That description is not true for all of our students at Gamble Montessori; as a school we have some students who come from traditional two-parent working professional households along with some who have experienced profound poverty.  And students from all of those situations participated in our theatre program, but I want to talk to you about one student. I want to talk to you about Ty’Esha Whitfield. I want to tell her story, but first I’ll let you know that I spoke to her and got her permission to tell this story. And I spoke to her mother and got her mother’s permission to tell this story.  I would never share this kind of privileged information about a student without that level of permission because, well, it’s a powerful story. And it is personal. And it might make some people uncomfortable. I will say that it should make some people uncomfortable.

Ty’Esha at the start of the year was a quiet, heavy set young lady who came to our school and didn’t have a lot of friends. She came from an elementary school where not a lot of her peers came to Gamble.  Gamble Montessori is a magnet school.  We draw students from every neighborhood in the district, so it is possible that a student can arrive here in 7th grade without any of their 6th grade classmates. So no built-in friendships to start the year. And she was having trouble making new friends.

She is a conscientious child.  About the third week of school she was outside and several students were playing on a tree branch and she pulled on it and the tree branch broke. I said to her, “We can’t do anything about this today, but I’m going to bring the tools tomorrow and we’re going to fix this.  We’re going to have to cut the branch because we can’t leave the tree open to disease.” She looked crestfallen.

The next day I went down into the lunchroom looking for her and SHE tapped ME on the shoulder and she said, “Mr. Jose, what do we need to do to fix this tree? I’m ready.”

Ty’Esha is a conscientious young lady.

I didn’t know at the time, in the first weeks of school, that she had started meeting with our school psychologist, Patty Moore.  Her community teachers had referred her because she was having such difficulty making friends with students at Gamble, and she was very socially awkward. She had reported symptoms of depression. Our psychologist learned that one of the things she did to calm herself down was sing to herself a favorite Disney song. Patty was struck by her voice and videotaped it for her and played it back, so Ty’Esha could hear her voice. Patty shared the video, with Ty’Esha’s permission, with her teachers and with me.

She had a beautiful voice.  And we all encouraged her to try out for the musical.  And she got the role of Erzulie, the goddess of love, in our productions of Once On This Island, Jr.  She had a show stopping solo.  She was so proud of herself, and justifiably so.

About this time I talked with the psychologist and, with Ty’Esha’s permission, she shared the information I am about to share with you.

It turned out that during the production, during the practice and rehearsal stage, Ty’Esha and her mother had experienced homelessness in a most profound and deep way.  As soon as they were removed from their home, her mother had tried her sister and all her family members and extended friends.  For 2 nights they had nowhere to stay at all, and they stayed in their own car.

To her great credit, when I shared with Ty’Esha that I knew this, she said to me, in the fast-paced rambling way of someone confessing a long-held secret: “Mr. Jose, don’t worry, it was only 2 nights, and we were okay.  Then we were in a shelter, Mr. Jose, and now it’s better.  We were only there a couple of weeks, and I was okay with the not sleeping so much, I was really worried about my Mom.  But it’s okay now because after we got with our sister for a while, my Mom got a job.  And she’s now renting an apartment just a couple of blocks from school, so I can walk home after I practice for whatever this year’s musical will be.”

How can you do anything but love and care for a student who relates the story of spending two nights in a car, but then expresses concern that her principal would worry about her upon learning this?

Students hit their marks as part of a team.
Students hit their marks as part of a team.

Ty’Esha is the kind of student that a program like this touches and changes. It didn’t just change her individually, like giving her a great experience – which it did – but it literally changed her life.  It changed where her Mom chose to live so she could be part of this program.  It’s helped her stay focused on school while her family got back on their feet.  The impact of this program on our students is an inspiration to me and to the teachers and other volunteers who give so much of their time and energy to the program.

I’m telling you one story, but in reality I’m exposing hidden stories like this everywhere.  And I can tell you that without this program, that it’s possible that Ty’Esha Whitfield would still be in a situation where she was without friends or struggling to make friends. Where she wasn’t confident in school, and she didn’t have a triumph on stage. In fact, this wasn’t just an accomplishment, wasn’t just a great night. It was a triumph for a young lady whose life had not given her much winning at all. It had not given her much hope.

So as you think about those envelopes in front of you today, I want you to think about Ty’Esha and I want you to think about the work that’s happening in each of these schools and come out to the school nearest you, be part of it. Think about how you can give, with not just with your money, but think about how you can give with your time and resources and come out and be with us, and come to our performances. I can tell you other students’ stories, but I promise you that on every stage there are more than one of these stories.

The arts, in addition to being popular among students and families, correlate to positive academic outcomes. For instance, there is a positive correlation between the number of arts classes taken in high school and student SAT scores.[1] We also know that participating in band doubles the chance of performing well in senior level math classes, and that the effect is more pronounced among impoverished students.[2] The JumpStart program itself is working in partnership with Dr. James Catterall of the Centers for Research on Creativity to look at the effect of the program on students’ critical thinking, problem-solving, and other developmental assets. Early research, reported verbally on the morning of the breakfast by Jim Palmerini of EdTA, shows growth in these areas among students who participated in the program compared with a control group at the three involved schools, Gamble, Finneytown, and Holmes.

The JumpStart program expanded this year, to include a total of six schools. These now include Dater High School and Aiken High School, both part of Cincinnati Public Schools. Also in the program are Finneytown Middle School, Felicity-Franklin Middle School, and Holmes Middle School. Starting your own drama program is not an easy process, but EdTA has provided ample support and is looking to continue to expand its program and increase middle school students’ access to drama programs. If you are interested in participating in the program, Ginny Butsch would be glad to hear from you. You can contact her at gbutsch@schooltheatre.org. Or if you would like to support the JumpStart program financially, follow this link to contribute.

Gamble Montessori will be performing Annie Jr. March 17 and 18, 2017.

 

 

[1] Ruppert, Sandra S. “Critical Evidence: How the Arts Benefit Student Achievement.” National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, 2006. Web. 18 Dec. 2016 < http://www.nasaa-arts.org/Publications/critical-evidence.pdf>.

[2] Catterall, James S., Richard Chapleau, and John Iwanaga (2002), “Involvement in the Arts and Human Development: Extending an Analysis of General Associations and Introducing the Special Cases of Intensive Involvement in Music and Theatre Arts.” In R. Deasy (Ed.), Critical Links: Learning in the Arts and Student Achievement and Social Development, Washington, DC: AEP

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

Mission and Vision

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In this summer’s Professional Learning Communities conference in Minneapolis, Learning Tree Solutions educational legend Richard DuFour stood in front of the group to perform what seemed to be a bit of a large-scale parlor trick. He told us collectively, a crowd of over 1,500 people, that he knew the mission statement at each of our schools.

He then proceeded to prove it.

“At Tree City school,” he intoned, and the words appeared on the screen before us. “We will educate our students to meet their highest potential,” he continued, to a wave of familiar laughter. “To meet or exceed academic goals,” more laughter. “On the standardized tests,” he added. I thought perhaps this was an aside, but the words showed up on the screen with the rest. “To be good citizens,” it was starting to hit home. He DID seem to know everyone’s mission statement, and he ended with a very familiar line. “And to become … say it with me ‘life … long … learners.’” We WERE able to say it with him. He had indeed captured the essence of pretty much every school’s mission statement.

Perhaps you hear echoes of your school’s mission statement in his words. At first it can be disorienting to hear him get so much of it right. Or perhaps it causes frustration, to know that your statement, lovingly crafted by a group of teachers and parents over a period of weeks, sounds like everyone else’s. It may even seem to validate the naysayers – you know, the ones who showed up at the first meeting with a full pre-written mission statement.  Maybe the details of your statement are different, but the structure and focus are the same.

It’s okay. So what if everyone’s school’s missions statement sounds about the same? After all, aren’t our missions all the same? Shouldn’t we be working to create good citizens? Shouldn’t they meet academic expectations? Certainly in the end, they should be well-informed and reasoned voters and citizens. Maybe the mystery is that we don’t all have the same mission statement to start with!

Crafted in our school’s opening year, on a staff retreat designed for setting the vision and mission for the school, Gamble Montessori’s vision statement is: Incorporating Montessori principles, we will create an enriching academic environment and a diverse, nurturing community that allows us to achieve our limitless potential.

It’s all there. First, the statement of our identity, “incorporating Montessori principles” become our “At Tree City School.” There’s the mention of the academic goal, “create an enriching academic environment”. And, of course, the tagline. Only instead of lifelong learners, we are achieving “our limitless potential.”

It is not identical to the theoretical universal statement. The parts that make it different are what demonstrates your individuality.

A vision statement frames what your school looks like when everything is perfect – when all the pieces fall into place. What are we living into? What are we growing toward? It Is meant to be an aspirational statement about where your students, and possibly the faculty and parents as well, hope to be as a result of working together.

It’s there – right down to “our limitless potential.” It gets there starting from our Montessori roots, and passing through academics and our intent to create a nurturing community.

A mission statement, on the other hand, is supposed to move the aspirational into the practical. This can be the “who / what / how” of the work of achieving the vision. While mission statements are often brief narratives in one, usually run-on, sentence, they can also take the form of a list of descriptions of right behavior. Numbered statements are not unheard of in this situation. Either way, it should lay out a specific plan for achieving your vision.

One could suggest that Gamble Montessori fell short in specificity:

We seek to help each other develop as thoughtful, intelligent, inclusive human spirits who contribute to the stewardship of our community and planet.

Not much of a to-do list for achieving our limitless potential.

It is okay, though.

It is okay that our vision statement is imperfect, or indistinguishable from someone else’s.

It is okay that our mission does not fit the definitions provided above, in that it does not describe a list of correct actions to take, or provide a roadmap to helping our students achieve their limitless potential.

One could read books about mission and vision statements and glean volumes of information that would explain the many ways these statements are imperfect. A starter list of those resources is available here. One even promises to help you get your personal statement down to one word!

It is similarly okay that your statement is what it is. You do not, necessarily, have to create it from scratch. What is more important is that you make it yours. In fact, if you already have one, you can likely identify the steps you have taken in the next few paragraphs, and the rest of the advice still applies to you.

To create your mission statement, follow these steps:

  1. Find a way to involve everyone in the process, especially at the beginning and end. This can be done by utilizing contract time when everyone is required to be present, or soliciting volunteers to come outside of contract time. Alternatively, a straightforward questionnaire with two or three questions could offer everyone a say. Include those in leadership positions, such as a leadership council or Board of Regents.
  2. Ask yourselves, why do we do what we do? And, what could it look like if we did it perfectly? These guiding questions, or survey questions, should form the heart of your final statement. You are building a cathedral, after all. Only a stretch goal will force you to stretch.
  3. Find words and phrases that begin to summarize or encapsulate those answers. Do certain words keep coming up? Keep them. Are there specific words that summarize major concepts you heard in the gathering phase? Add them.
  4. Wordsmith it in a small group, focusing on making sure it captures the spirit of your school. Focus on making it shorter, and more comprehensive. Why a small group? Because wordsmithing by committee is a Sisyphean task.
  5. Formally adopt it. We have an Instructional Leadership Team, mandated by our collective bargaining agreement, who is responsible for leading instruction. Your school has some sort of governing group internally, and perhaps externally. Their imprimatur is an important step in this process. This is why you involved them from the start: if they are happy with it, and the staff is happy with it, the rest of the process has a chance to work. If they don’t, you have dragged your staff through a frustrating process to simply spin their wheels.
  6. Live into it.

This last step requires further explanation.

Living into your mission statement seems to contrast with the daily work of teaching. In those moments of grading, correcting student misbehavior, differentiating lessons, or turning in grade summaries to the principal, “our limitless potential” seems a long way away. It is easy to lose sight of the cathedral you’re building at the end of a long day.

It is okay that our vision statement is imperfect, or indistinguishable from someone else’s.

So what is the solution? One key part is to never let them get too far from your consciousness. Put your statements everywhere. Here are some of the ways we incorporate our mission, vision, and other core statements in our daily operations:

  • Just before the greeting at each meeting, we state aloud one of our core statements. In our case, this includes core values, mission statement, vision statement, staff agreement, and our district’s Board policy regarding the education of students with disabilities.
  • Organize your behavioral expectations based on your mission statement or core values. Post them in every common space, including the office, classrooms, halls, and restrooms, our rules are sorted into sections: community, hard work, learning, peace, and respect.
  • Incorporate discussions of your values into disciplinary conversations. Our student reflection sheet asks students, “Which core values were broken?” The student is then prompted to explain how that value was broken. (Interestingly, the frustrated student sometimes goes to great lengths to explain how another student, or even the teacher, violated a core value. That works too!)
  • Just put them everywhere: in your staff manual, on your letterhead, in a student agreement, in the staff agreement, on teacher appreciation mugs, on places yet unmentioned…

There is no drowning in the mission statement, there is only saturation. Every time we call ourselves to be the best we can be, it can serve to inspire us.

Please share your mission statement in the comments.

Grading to Encourage Effort

The wisest thing I have ever heard a person say about grading came from my friend and sometimes co-worker Barb Scholtz. A long-time teacher of math and English and life, she taught my son in middle school at Clark Montessori.  It was years later, in her role as a teacher educator, that she worked with a team of teachers who were doing an independent PD on differentiation at Gamble. (Read more about that here.) Here she asked the basic question that shook my thinking about failing grades. “If a child is learning, how can they be failing?”

This is more than a question. It is a revelation. We have to move past thinking of a grade in a gradebook as immutable truth, an unswayable bedrock fact which must be reported.

images-1This article assumes you are in a situation where you are required to report a single letter grade, and perhaps a percentage, to sum up 10 weeks’ worth of effort, practice, improvement, success and failure on a multitude of social and academic skills. I’m sorry about your situation. I’m here to help.

There appear to be two philosophies among teachers when discussing grading. One camp asserts that grading is a time-consuming but relatively simple process – you set up your gradebook, assign different point totals for different types of assignments, set up weighting or assign more points to emphasize the more important work, and average it all out at the end of the quarter. The other camp suggests that grading is a laborious and challenging activity, where you try to find ways for students who are improving to demonstrate that growth without becoming discouraged or complacent, and the rules seem arbitrary so you change them relatively often to try and better match the growth you see in your students.

It is a fair bet that those of you who read this blog are not in the “grading is easy” camp.

I am not here to convince you that it is, though my message is simple: The best thing you can accomplish with a grade is to keep a student invested in her education. But how?

Nancy Flanagan, a writer and consultant at Education Week, states the problem well in her article “Grading as an Opportunity to Encourage Students” (emphasis hers):

You’d like to think that a low grade would be construed as a warning, a spur toward greater effort and focus. You’d like to think that–but not so much, at least for some kids. For them, a low grade feels like proof there’s no reason to even try. … How do you reconcile that with points gained, percentages achieved, assignments completed and comparatively evaluated–the traditional tools of grading? There’s no such thing as a completely objective grade. Compiling, weighting and averaging numbers often leaves a good teacher with a grade that doesn’t reflect what he understands about the child in question–what that child actually knows and can do.

“First, do no harm,” becomes the directive to those of us doing academic grading. But here is the call to understand the individual student. Flanagan notes that her statement is true “for some kids.” This implies, accurately, that there are some students who see poor grades as motivational, just as there are some students who see them as defeating.  So our first piece of advice is to understand each child’s relationship with grading – what will spur greater effort?

You can do this by asking students about their grades in the past and what that shows about them, perhaps with a simple survey.

Tell me about a grade you got in the past that you are proud of:

Tell me about a grade in the past that made you frustrated:

What do your past grades reveal about you, if anything?:

With these questions, which could be asked at the start of the year about past classes or in the middle of the year about your own class, you can get a sense of the student’s feelings about grading, and whether these grades are motivational or defeating.

It is when you know the student well that you can really judge progress.

Alfie Kohn has written extensively about grading, and he has pointed out the wrong-headed thinking about how grades motivate. He challenges the common concept that bad grades are motivational in an article published at his website entitled “Grading”:

The trouble lies with the implicit assumption that there exists a single entity called “motivation” that students have to a greater or lesser degree. In reality, a critical and qualitative difference exists between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation — between an interest in what one is learning for its own sake, and a mindset in which learning is viewed as a means to an end, the end being to escape a punishment or snag a reward. Not only are these two orientations distinct, but they also often pull in opposite directions.

So if we are to adhere to the concept of first doing no harm, we must escape from our conviction that bad grades will motivate a student.

And we must stand firm against the idea that missed work should be punished with a “0” and then we move on.

Success is dependent on effort.
Success is dependent on effort.

Seriously. Where did that concept originate? It is hard to imagine a work scenario where everything is predicated on the timeliness of the work. Do we walk away from an unfinished hotel or brake job? As educators, if an IEP or a 90 day plan falls past a deadline, do we simply drop the work and move on to other things? No and no. Even in timebound work, time is treated as a variable. If your package arrives late, do you reject it? No.

If the work we give in the classroom is truly valuable, we must ourselves treat it that way. We cannot tell a student the work is crucial, and then tell them to take the “0” and move on. (Later, in a different article, we will discuss the relative merits of various points structures and the widespread adoption of the “No Zeros” philosophy, where missing work is given a 50%. In fact, there are many ways to construct a gradebook – standards based grading, grading with rubrics, “on a curve”, etc. Whichever you choose needs to have student growth in mind.)

Josh Vogt and I wrestled with the challenges of finding a fair grading practice idea at Gamble in my first year as principal. Specifically, we were discussing ways to increase student motivation. He was unhappy with the number of students who did not complete the homework and who, consequently, were failing his class. Characteristically, I selected a sports metaphor selected from an article I had read years before. The article had asked, “What if grading at school was more like sports?” Both of us were videogamers, and played Madden football specifically, so we knew we were pretty much experts on football, and that was where our conversation focused.

Me: “Where do you get graded in football?”

Josh: “On the scoreboard Friday night.”

Me: “And if you mess up at practice?”

Josh: “You practice it again.” He shrugged. “And maybe get yelled at.”

Me: “I’m not a fan of yelling in the classroom.”

Josh: “It would get things going, though.”

He’s not really a yeller, so I think he’s just being the devil’s advocate now.

Shaking my head: “Just, no.” And I kept shaking my head through, “How about sprints? Push ups?”

Me: “Really, you just keep practicing, right? And how do you get graded Friday night?”

Josh: “The score. The score is your grade. It is real, it counts.”

Me: “So what was it you did all week? Does it count? Like, if you practice hard, do you get extra points?”

Josh: “No, you just improve your chances of getting extra points.”

Me: “And if you don’t practice?”

Josh: “Well, you play terribly.”

Me: “Yes, but I don’t know a coach who lets you play if you didn’t practice.”

Josh: “Fair point.”

It went on like that for a while longer, but we worked out a somewhat research-based and somewhat metaphorically-bound new grading policy. Students had to practice in order to play. That is, they had to do the classwork and homework in order to take the quizzes or complete the projects that would determine their final grade. Done is done. Not done practicing means they are not yet ready to “play”.

Josh’s new policy included the provision that you could not even sit for the test until you had completed the work that covered on the test. The first week of implementation, one of our long-time parents and biggest supporters was upset when her son could not take an exam. She had grown up through a traditional system, and insisted that Rich be allowed to take the zero on his homework, and proceed to take the test. She was unsatisfied after talking with Josh, and her call next came to me. Fortunately, her son (as well as her husband) was an athlete. When I provided the rationale, using very little teacher jargon and relying heavily on the sports comparison, she relented a bit. Once she came to understand that Josh was giving extended time and that there were multiple chances for Rich to take the test after he completed the “practice”, she agreed to give the policy a chance.

When Rich completed the work, a couple weeks after the original due date, he sat for the test at his lunch time. He did well: his grade on the test was better than his typical social studies score. He and his mother attributed the improved score to the fact that he completed the work. He played better because he had practiced, and they became supporters of the policy.

If a child is learning, how can they be failing?

Carol Dweck, whose Mindset work has deeply impacted this generation’s approach to education, reminds us that grading that is linked to ability, rather than to effort, can prevent a student from working to his potential. In her Scientific American article “The Secret to Raising Smart Kids” she asserts, “In particular, attributing poor performance to a lack of ability depresses motivation more than does the belief that lack of effort is to blame.” Her admonition is clear: grading should be linked directly to effort. We must do everything in our power to help kids stop thinking about grades as a reflection of their ability. Phrases like “she is not that good at math,” or “her writing is average” should be avoided. If some summative statement like that must be made, perhaps in response to a standardized test score, it should be paired with a statement of encouragement or of the impermanence of a score at a given point in time.

Dweck’s largely universally accepted advocacy for nurturing effort takes us back to our point. We must think of every aspect of our classroom when encouraging students to see learning as a process. We are quick to devise lessons, and teach students the language of effort. However, we undo this work when we then subject this motivated student to the effects of the traditional gradebook. To complete the work of creating the student who says “I can’t get this … yet,” we must have a grading system that says the same thing.

So here are the steps to creating a grade system that encourages effort:

  • Understand each child’s relationship with grading – what will spur greater effort?
  • Create a policy that promotes greater effort – consider a “practice to play” policy that emphasizes work completion (like Josh’s policy) and effort as a gateway to credit
  • Never – not in conversation, or during conferences, or in your grade policy – associate grades with a student’s ability
  • Be willing to accept your gradebook average as a suggestion, and give students the benefit of any doubt
  • Explain grades as a snapshot in time, not a conclusion

How do you use grades to encourage effort and growth? Add a comment below to share an idea.

Lead Change by Changing

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The Barrow sisters arrived at Gamble as a group three years ago, although they were in separate grades. Bright and engaged and outspoken in class, they were nonetheless a task to manage there, and an absolute disruption when together in the hallway. If one of them got upset about a bad grade or an argument with a friend, the three responded as a unit, storming down the hall, feeding into each other’s anger. When any one of them was angry, I saw them collectively as Pig Pen, only instead of a cloud of dust, they hurricaned down the hall in a frenzy of frustration and anger. One morning they had been brought to the office by Mr. Sinden. Well, he got them near the office, anyway. They kept talking themselves out of actually entering – one would say okay, and then another would initiate another complaint and they would collapse again into angry pacing and threats. After twenty long minutes, we settled that matter and returned them to class. One at a time throughout the morning they each ended up at the office again, having been removed from class for misbehavior.

Something was going on. I pulled Alicia, the oldest, into the hallway. “What’s going on?” She started to talk about how her teacher removed her from class for nothing.

“No, what is going ON?” I emphasized the last word to suggest bigger dealings, and pointed out that she and her sisters had separately and collectively been removed from class multiple times, and we still were not at lunch time. “Nothing,” she started. “It’s just that …” She paused, and I waited until she spoke again. When she stopped talking several minutes later, she had revealed that the sisters had been separated the previous night in an effort to find warm places to sleep, and still one of them had ended up in another sister’s house where the electricity was off. They were cold and tired, and glad to be back in each other’s company, until they learned that a friend had made some disgusting allegations about the youngest sister on Facebook. They were eager to settle the score as a group, in person, but were trying to not get in trouble for doing it at school.

Several among my staff expressed frustration that I had not simply sent the girls home on suspension at the first incident. I had cause to suspend them, in a strict reading of the rules. However, if I had done that, I would not have learned about their collective situation. They would have not gotten any instruction for several days, and school would have remained an adversary rather than an opportunity for these students.

I learned a lot that day, and from similar experiences before that. Over time I have learned to look at unusual misbehavior as a sign of larger concerns, as Krista explained in a post that student behavior really reveals hidden issues. I have learned to ascribe charitable explanations to the misbehavior – not as an excuse for the child, but as a way to understand the child. Besides, it never hurts in a relationship with a student to inquire about her life beyond the walls of the school. Simply asking, “Are you alright? Your actions here do not seem like you,” sends a student a message of caring and concern and tells her that you understand her best self, even if she is not feeling like her best self at the moment.

This is significantly better than asking, “What is wrong with you, don’t you know how to behave?”

CPS High School principals created their own Harvard / CPS / Grit logo mashup to mark their training summer 2015.
CPS High School principals created their own Harvard / CPS / Grit logo mashup to mark their training summer 2015.

In the summer of 2015, Cincinnati Public High School Principals participated in the Harvard program “Improving Schools: The Art of Leadership.” http://www.gse.harvard.edu/ppe/program/improving-schools-art-leadership

In the program, we explored many different facets of school leadership, taking classes from some of the leading researchers, teachers, and school leaders in education today. At first I believed the common message was the declared theme of the conference: every child can learn. A passionate argument was made time and again about the power of the leader to send this message about every student, and a recognition that education professionals take every lost student as a personal challenge. I found myself already primed by my experience and my beliefs to fully embrace this message. They were preaching to the choir.

Soon though, I realized a subtle but more powerful message had been intentionally woven through our courses: In order for an organization to change, the leader must change. This “change” was not the simplistic one-size-fits-all “fire the principal of the underperforming school.” (That was, actually, one of the three turnaround models provided by the State of Ohio under the School Improvement Grant, as developed under the No Child Left Behind legislation. Seriously. “Replace the principal” was an entire strategy.) No, in order for an organization to change, the leader must be willing to change himself or herself.

The first giveaway was our introduction to the book Immunity to Change, by Harvard School of Education Professors Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey. Dr. Kegan walked us through the process they developed to identify hidden motivators that undermine our efforts to be our best selves. In the process, you set a particular goal and outline the steps to achieve that goal. Then you examine your behaviors that work against your goal. Finally, you investigate your choices to see what competing commitments you have – what is important to you that prevents you from doing the things that need to be done to reach your goal. Then you take steps to eliminate or disempower those competing commitments. You can see a brief explanation of the process here. This process explained how to take what was hidden in yourself and make it plain. Again, it prepared you to make a change in your organization by making change within yourself.

I was content to see this as a way for working through my habitual procrastination, but nothing more than that. A salve for a problem familiar to many. I stubbornly clung to my belief that I did not really need to change so much as I needed to learn a few good systems. (And I believe a few good systems can truly help!)

Other readings and experiences grew out of the Harvard experience. Soon thereafter I had the pleasure of listening to and then meeting Craig Weber, author of Conversational Capacity. His suggestions for creating teams that could function at a high level – teams that could learn from each other and speak about uncomfortable ideas and resolve problems effectively – involved the same sort of work. The team was not expected to work on a new set of procedures or go through a particular set of stages (that will happen anyway, as you can see here), but instead it was expected that the leader would conduct himself in a way to bring about new conversations. Through his or her efforts guiding the conversation, the team would remain in the conversational sweet spot between what he Weber described as “minimizing” and “winning”. That is, in the zone between wanting to avoid the conversation at all costs, and wanting to get your way and appear right at all costs. He explains that we all lean toward one of those conversational mistakes, and those tendencies work to prevent a team from solving problems.

 

<—– minimize —————(sweet spot)——————–win—–>

 

Fortunately, through the individual’s vigilance and self-discipline, there is a way to intentionally keep the group in the sweet spot, where they are discussing key issues, raising problems, proposing solutions, and working together toward the same goal. It is not a system or a checklist, as much as some would hope for that. There is a time to back off and let a solution happen, and there is a time to push an idea forward.  But these are not “minimizing” or “winning”. These skills can be learned. It is a discipline.

Once again, the message is that as a leader, I must learn how to do this in order to be what the team needs. I recognize in myself the tendencies to minimize. My same skills that help me to be a careful observer of my students also can prevent me from addressing concerns I have with actions taken by a student or a staff member. I often fail to take immediate action on important items. I most likely do this because I want to avoid conflict. As a minimizer, this means I must learn to push myself to be more assertive and to embrace the possibility of conflict in order to accomplish what needs to be done.

Once again, I am being pushed to change the organization by changing myself.

In Conversational Capacity, Craig made reference to something called the “ladder of inference”. I encountered the ladder again in Peter Senge’s Schools That Learn. Peter Senge is the author of the bestselling systems-thinking book The Fifth Discipline. It is a staple in management courses at universities around the world. Schools That Learn is a version of the book specifically geared towards educators and schools.

The ladder of inference, pictured below, is a helpful way to envision any person’s mental processing mistakes about a situation.

The ladder of inference.
The ladder of inference.

Unlike most mental models provided in trainings, this is not a set of steps to take to reach a desired conclusion. It is, more accurately, a guide on how people get things wrong in a personal interaction. It’s an anti-instruction chart. It’s a map of what your mind does whether you want it to or not.

Weber gives this example:

Consider the experience of two men visiting Chicago for the first time. Traveling together to attend a meeting, they land at O’Hare airport and share a taxi into town. Arriving early, they decide to wander the streets together and explore the downtown area. An hour later, as they walk into their meeting, the woman who summoned them to Chicago knowing it’s their first visit, asks them a question, “What did you think of the city?”

“It’s a dump,” exclaims one.

“It’s beautiful,” raves the other.

One question we might ask is, “Who is right?” But that’s not the most interesting line of inquiry.

In any given situation, such as a visit to a new city, there is a lot of directly observable data. Focusing on restaurants means perhaps overlooking the parks, and people-watching could mean attempting to figure out their profession by focusing on their clothing, or noting the cultural and racial diversity, or looking for people who otherwise stand out to you. There is a lot to see. You cannot possibly see it all. So the men in the example started selecting right from the minute they entered the taxi, and continued during their walk.  So they moved from “reality and facts” to “selected reality.”

From the limited observable data they collected, their unique background experiences – their cultural, educational, and experiential backgrounds – filtered what they saw without their knowledge. So they moved from “selected reality” to “interpreted reality.” Without their knowing it, the men had taken the same tour at the same time, and had reached completely different conclusions based on their personal interpretations.

In this case, it was their vocations that helped create their interpretations of what they saw. The first man was a police officer, the second an architect. The first saw a dump, with evidence of crime all over the place based largely on his training and experience. The second saw beautiful architecture in many different styles and eras, and neighborhoods that reflected the eras in which they were built, again based largely on his training and experience.

Our vocational training is one of many powerful filters that comprise our ladders of inference.

Or, as Weber phrases it, the ladder forces us to ask, all the time, “what else is your mind doing without your permission?” This is an important question for educators to ask themselves all the time as we deal with students, parents, and each other.

With the Barrow sisters, it would have been easy to conclude, “Those girls are out of control.” It would have required no work on my part. There would have been general support for the decision. I could see the misbehavior and assume they do not know how to behave, or that they meant ill will toward Mr. Sinden or me. That ladder is an easy one to climb when we see a student not following clear directions from an adult.

Frustratingly, in a school, there is often a perverse sort of pressure on teachers to view students in just this way: as intentional disruptors who do not want to do well in school. This may be my greatest frustration as a principal. In a vocation where we should be trained to support and nurture students, the urge to punish and suspend a student is oddly fostered and encouraged among some teachers. I ask this question: shouldn’t the vocational training of educators take us in the opposite direction? Shouldn’t we always be giving students the benefit of the doubt? The answer is simple.

Yes we should.

And it is intensely frustrating to know that I am at times criticized for doing just that.

A couple of years ago, Cincinnati experienced a particularly cold winter and a stretch of single digit (Fahrenheit) morning temperatures. One of these mornings I was standing next to another adult in the hallway outside the cafeteria when Donte arrived, late, and headed into the cafeteria for breakfast. School had started 15 minutes earlier, and Donte lived within walking distance. He was chronically tardy. He was wearing a zip-up windbreaker over a hoodie which, I saw as I got closer, was pulled on over a second hoodie. My colleague commented aloud on Donte’s tardiness, and implied a conclusion that he was not really trying to get to school. I’ve made similar comments to and about students as well, but today I approached focused on a second set of observations. “Donte, it is super cold out there, are you warm enough?” He shivered his response, “I’m okay Mr. Jose.”

“You must sure love school to get here on a day like this.”

“I do, Mr. Jose.” He reconsidered, “Well, most of it anyway.”

As educators, we must be aware of how we move up the ladder of inference. It is very easy to misjudge another person’s actions, especially as we have more and more interactions with them over time. It is easy to get it wrong, as I did one particular day, when my student suddenly left my class without permission. I was certain that she was intent on skipping, and I rather publicly wrote her a Saturday school discipline form in front of my class. I soon learned that she had run out to help a teacher who had spilled something in the hallway.

Our classrooms have 28 or more students in them, we see 5 classes over the course of the day, we interact with more students and teachers in the hall … how do we possibly manage everyone in a world rife with opportunities to misunderstand? The answer is, we manage ourselves. We have to manage how we collect information, and how we process it, and what we do with it.

In interpersonal interactions, you must guard against climbing your own ladder of inference. One way to do this by always offering the benefit of the doubt. (We even build this last piece of advice into our Staff Agreement.)

Our staff agreement, final draft

How does that work? Practice. You can do it by yourself, and you can do it with a partner. When a student breaks a rule for the umpteenth time, imagine a variety of possible reasons why that just happened. At Gamble, students sometimes come into the office and shout a request to the office staff as soon as they get through the door. I could suggest, as some have, that this reflects “poor home training.” One could just as easily attribute this to an eagerness to return to class, or a lack of experience interacting with adults, or just above-average adolescent ebullience. Practicing the act of imagining charitable explanations for misbehavior opens the door to new understandings for all student behavior.

With the Barrow sisters, my choice helped set them up for success. Each of them has made the honor roll at least once in the intervening two years, and this year, when circumstances turned difficult for their family, they appropriately sought out the school’s support.

So how can you avoid climbing the ladder of inference?

  1. Observe the scene as fully as you can – look at the child or adult and gather facts
  2. Ask questions to get the other person’s perspective, take notes if necessary
  3. Ask what it is the other person was hoping to accomplish with their actions
  4. Fully explain your own perspective, then intentionally ask, “What am I missing?”
  5. Be willing to abandon your first interpretation of the situation

This is not to say that every action has a charitable explanation. It is wrong, however, to start from the assumption that the person you are dealing with intended to do harm.