Good Books: The Talent Code

-by Jack M. Jose

Usain Bolt ignited: "People say I am a legend, but I am not. Not until I have defended my Olympic title. Then I will be a legend. That is what I have decided."
Usain Bolt ignited: “People say I am a legend, but I am not. Not until I have defended my Olympic title. Then I will be a legend. That is what I have decided.”

Usain Bolt. Katie Ledecky. Michael Phelps. The US Women’s Gymnastics team.  In this Olympic season we collectively pause to contemplate greatness and excellence as the world’s best athletes compete in carefully adjudicated sports, with times measured to hundredths of a second, and the title of “World’s Best” at stake. We examine Usain Bolt’s long, muscular frame and we could easily dismiss him as “born to run.” Michael Phelps’ extraordinarily long reach aids him as he propels himself through the water. Simone Biles’ compact build seems made for the floor routine. Are they born to it? What does it take to be elite?

10,000 hours.

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell outlined a common factor among leading innovators, athletes, and experts in a variety of fields – 10,000 hours of focused practice. This research reinforced and depended in no small amount on the work of Anders Ericsson, a brain scientist whose research suggested the same correlation between practice time and success.  While not simple, the number at least seems straightforward. Measurable. More like a goal than a mystery.

As educators, charged with aiding the most natural human process of learning, we turned this 10,000 number over in our heads. 10,000 minutes. How many hours was that? And in school days? Weeks? How exactly to get to this goal? 6 hours a day, 180 days a year. Well, simple: we could get there by the middle of 10th grade with every student … if we remained focused on only one subject. And so, to try and do this for every student, the work seems impossible. Frustratingly, Gladwell’s evidence is largely anecdotal. There are naysayers, like the author of this Business Insider article who claimed to “destroy” Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule.

And there are other authors who, as with any innovative and popular idea, had been researching in the same field and explored the notion further. One of those authors is Daniel Coyle, whose book The Talent Code unpacks the notion of being born with certain talent. He concludes, in the subtitle of his book, “Greatness isn’t born. It’s grown. Here’s how.”

As with Gladwell’s book, Coyle’s uses prominent athletes along with somewhat lesser known musicians and other experts. And while he recognizes the importance of time in improving skills, he explores areas where not just one athlete or team, but instead many, have achieved excellence and prominence. These people do not have more time than others available to them. There is something powerful in how they use that time. Gladwell recognized that important detail in his book, that excellence is not something to be stumbled upon at the end of 10,000 hours of just any sort of practice, and wrote an article to dispel the idea. Instead, these authors understand that you have to be working on a skill at the edge of the student’s abilities. The area that Lev Vygotsky called the “zone of proximal development,” where our skills are being challenged and our work is improving in speed and accuracy. An area which, not coincidentally I believe, has all the characteristics of the conditions of “flow” as researched and explained by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Jeff Brokamp, Principal of Walnut Hills High School, by many measures the best public high school in Ohio and an annual member of the US News and World Report’s national best schools list, feels that this book has an important message for educators. “Every teacher should read this,” he told me. I replied that I think everyone who works with learners should read it. Subsequently, I have shared it with my coaches and recommended it to teachers who have asked how to improve their practice. Here is why I share it with those who are interested in getting the most out of their limited time with learners.

Coyle breaks the “talent code” by declaring it a process of 3 key parts. Helpfully, these are all controllable factors: deep practice, ignition, and master coaching. While the book seems targeted at coaching athletics, it has powerful implications for the academic classroom.

Deep Practice

In deep practice, the student enters a “highly targeted, error-focused process” of stopping and focusing on repairing small errors. Whether it is a clarinetist working – as if from a blueprint – on getting each note right in a challenging passage, or a pilot working on the skill of instrument-only flying in the “Blue Box”, deep practice focuses narrowly on a specific skill. A quick illustration of the concept comes from Brazil’s soccer team, where players – due to a lack of resources including soccer fields – practice in a highly confined space, using soccer balls that are smaller and heavier. In this way, the unintended consequence of insufficient resources is a mastery of the ball handling skills required to out-maneuver an opponent on the field. While much of the game of soccer is spread out on the open field, these pivotal moments of defender vs ball-handler really determine the outcome of the game by allowing a team to control possession and set up more shots and better shots on goal.

Deep Practice in the Classroom

In the academic classroom, a math teacher can emulate the deep practice model by breaking down a math process into its component parts. If a particular step slows down or confounds one or more or her students, the teacher can provide practice just on that step. Instead of having students run over the open fields portion of the questions, the parts they already have mastered, wasting precious classroom time, the teacher can isolate many examples of those particular steps. The student can enter deep practice by practicing, over and over, the specific skill they lack. This intense practice speeds growth and maximizes the little time we have.

This can also happen by using the concept of writing across the curriculum where every student is asked to write in response to every question in every class. This creates additional practice where some students would otherwise simply tune out or attend to something other than the question at hand.  In a typical classroom, a teacher covering a concept can pose a question to the group and have only a few hands go up. The response might be to call on one of those whose hands are up. A more skilled teacher might recognize that he has called on those students already and ask for additional volunteers. A master teacher will use the concept of cold-calling and writing to learn to ensure deep practice. Here’s how that works. For the key concepts in a lesson, instead of calling out a question to ultimately be answered by one student, the master teacher asks every student to write their response. This creates almost universal engagement with the question. If students then pair up and share those answers with each other, then offer their own or their partner’s response to the whole group, each child has twice engaged with the question and possible answers. When shown or guided to the correct answer by a skilled teacher, the student can refer to their written notes and their conversation – their deep practice. The work is rewarded with the right answer, and they have put themselves in a position to understand why it is right, or at least to remember it better. This process takes a little longer than the traditional call and singular response, but increasing participation from 1 to 28 students in the same period of time makes it far more efficient.

Ignition

“If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery it would not seem so wonderful at all.” – Michelangelo

There are three steps to help someone move from merely understanding deep practice to helping it happen. Collectively Coyle calls these “ignition.” Some children arrive in the world with a “rage to master” a new skill or skills, according to the appropriately-named psychologist Ellen Winner. Perhaps all children arrive with it, and their environment either nurtures that or stifles it. However, creating the conditions for igniting learning is not a mystery. Through all the examples of individual passion and genius like that of world-record holder Katie Ledecky, Coyle sees evidence of three common steps available when ignition finally happens

  • Chunking and slowing it down – the best learners and masters of skills find ways to master small steps within the larger skill. In reading, we master the sounds of letters even as we are memorizing common words as a whole. Together these skills help us read for understanding and attack new words we have not seen. Again, with a musician as an example, rather than practicing the whole piece over and over again, chunking means breaking the work into parts, then focusing in on the areas that are difficult, and not wasting time with the parts already mastered. Additionally, the masters slow a skill down to understand its component parts. While they do this, myelin is still forming, and they are understanding the pieces and how they fit together. This way they can focus on eliminating errors, and understand the blueprint of the larger whole.
  • Repeating it – the deep practice model calls for a lot of targeted practice. Over and over again. You hear it from the greatest athletes, as well as researchers and artists. They are practicing their skills, researching their fields, over and over again. Typically about 10 years’ worth of practice is what it takes to become elite in the field.
  • Feeling it – Coyle is quick to point out that none of the actual masters in their fields with whom he spoke used the words “easy”, “natural”, or “genius” to describe what they had accomplished. Instead they described their practice using words like “alert”, “edge”, “focus”, “mistake” and “repeat.” In short, even in practice they were working toward a goal and feeling the effort closing the gap between where they were and where they wanted to be.

Ignition then happens when these parts are in place, and the artist, athlete, or academician sees themselves as engaging in a task to achieve a long-term goal. Perhaps they see someone in the field who they want to emulate, or they have a life goal of achievement in a certain area. A commonality among the champions is that they knew they wanted to be champions, and they knew that it would take a long time. And, most importantly, they identified with someone who had accomplished what they wanted. They knew they belonged at the top.

Greatness isn’t born. It’s grown. Here’s how.

Ignition in the classroom

Ignition then has clear implications in the classroom, closely tied with research by Carol Dweck in the area of Mindset. Students need to understand the work in front of them, be willing and able to engage in the work of targeted growth, and, importantly, see themselves as capable of being successful over time.

Additionally, students benefit from seeing how they belong to something bigger and more important than themselves. In the classroom, we can help students feel part of something bigger by telling the story of our classroom or school, and particularly of students who achieved lofty goals who emerged through these same classrooms and hallways. We can also build connections to professionals in the field through intersessions and other real-world experiences, and innovative projects such as Gamble Montessori’s Senior Project (to be featured here soon.) In this way, we can demystify success and expertise, and put it within range of every student.

Master Coaching

In the hotbeds of success explored by Coyle, he saw another common theme: a master coach. Coyle watched a master coach, Hans Jesson, walk two students through cello lessons. Coyle asked, after the lesson, which of the cellists were better. Coyle believed the first was much better and was surprised when Jensson struggled with the question. “It’s difficult to say. When I teach, I give everyone everything. What happens after that, who can know?” Basketball Coach John Wooden is the winningest coach in men’s college basketball history. When his coaching style was explored through scripting and breaking down every audible comment, his coaching was found to be lacking in overt inspiration, and instead was infused with practice. An article by two researchers even found that he had a particular sequence of events he used so often they dubbed it a “Wooden”: he showed the player the right way to do something, imitated the wrong way they had just done it, and then he showed them the right way again.

Master coaches have what Coyle calls a “matrix” – a vast understanding of the task and what is needed to accomplish it well. Also, they have a perceptiveness about the needs for each of the individuals with whom they work. Third, they possess what he calls a “probing, strategic impatience,” where they interrupt practice to strengthen specific things they see need work. Finally, they possess a “theatrical honesty” with which they point out mistakes almost as if each mistake was the end of the world, then transform that moment into a chance for new learning, which is equally theatrically praised.

Master Coaching in the Classroom

It is the work of the teacher to become a master coach in the classroom. Meet students where they are, through pre-assessments and close examination of work to determine their level, then using differentiation and targeted practice to help them continually work within their zone of proximal development. That is – they need to become experts not just in their area of teaching, but also at seeing where their students are currently, and how to move them forward.

A reading teacher might work with a student reading aloud, inviting them back to the word they just mispronounced, or even back to the start of the sentence to make sure they read it at a fast enough speed, or with sufficient fluency, to get meaning from it. One student might get assistance with pronunciation and decoding, while another might get assistance with sentence inflection.

Most importantly, a master teacher can forge a personal connection of trust and love with his students. This happens through hard work, masquerading as effortless “being there” for students. Thus, building relationships become the fundamental first step of learning.

You know we worked harder than you. (Author's paraphrase.)
You know we worked harder than you. (Author’s paraphrase.)

The Brain Science of Deep Practice and Master Coaching

Every signal the brain sends travels along a path of neurons. That path is coated and reinforced by a recently-understood substance called myelin. The more the pathway is used, the more it is reinforced. This is true for every skill and every action, whether the action is correct or not. This, of course, has implications for all of our actions. As a teacher, it has important implications for teaching and re-teaching as a primary tool to address not just classroom errors but disciplinary matters as well.

Deep practice of specialized, broken down skills develops myelin in important information and skills that will need to be recalled. In this way, practices in the classroom that create multiple chances to learn a skill, such as deep practice, will physically change the brain of the student. Practicing the correct skills correctly, can permanently improve students’ acquisition of the target skill and related skills. If we can expand to an entire classroom answering a question, this is 28 times the amount of growth we would get in a traditional classroom. If we can target the practice to a specific skill and cram 6 or 8 practices of the skill instead of 2 practices of the whole process, then this is growth at a factor of 3 to 4 times the traditional classroom. That’s a lot of myelin, laying the groundwork for a superhighway of correct skills.

Master coaching means, in short, understanding which pathways are not yet developed. Looking closely at student skills and addressing deficiencies promptly and accurately helps ensure that the right pathways are being formed. This is why it is important that we correct students’ grammar at every opportunity, and teach them to make eye contact and give a firm handshake at every greeting. This is also why at Gamble we use the Teach Like a Champion skill of No Opt Out, where a student who gets the answer wrong has a chance to hear the correct answer, then must give the correct answer verbally to the teacher. The right action reinforces the learning. We are creating powerful habits that sometimes are working to erase older powerful habits. The master coach does not pass up an opportunity to help rebuild it the correct way.

In a way, we are all called to be John Wooden in the classroom. However, the work has been demystified. In order to create superhighways of excellent practice, we need to utilize deep practice – chunk the work, practice it over and over, and help students understand when it is right. We need to help students see the value of their work and identify with those who use the work in a valuable way in our society. We need to build deep relationships of trust with students, and we need to provide them very specific interventions at the time when they need it. Most of us do most of this just about every day.

What area seems most natural for you? Which area will be the biggest struggle? We welcome your comments.

What’s Your Story?

-by Jack M. Jose

“A hundred years later, their spirit lives on,” claims the commercial for the Dodge Motor Company. In one action-packed minute we see a fast-paced parade of evolving Dodge cars engaged in a road race between the competitive Dodge brothers, “pushing each other like only a brother can.” We are left with a sense of striving to perform better, and go faster.

A Nike commercial aired during the 2016 Olympics shows transgender Olympic athlete Chris Mosier training over time. He gets asked multiple questions along the lines of “How did you know you would be strong enough to compete against men? How did you know that the team would accept you?” He responds to each, “I didn’t.” Finally he is asked, “Didn’t you ever want to give up?”

“Yeah, but I didn’t.”

Chris Mosier Nike Ad
Chris Mosier’s tenacity communicates a core value at Nike. “I didn’t quit.”

The commercials are thrilling, inspiring even. Stories are a powerful way to convey a feeling or a central tenet of a company, a brand, or even a school or community. Stories can evoke emotions and create a sense of familiarity and loyalty in a way that almost nothing else can. Stories promote achievement, action for a cause, and loyalty.

What is your institution’s story?

Who founded it? Why does it carry this name? What is important to you? What memorable people made their mark? Who do you hope to inspire?

And, most importantly, what qualities do you hope to instill in the people who work there and the people you serve?

We tell stories about our workplace all the time, but which stories are those? Unfortunately, all too often, we tell the stories of someone trying to skirt the rules to their own benefit, an act of vandalism, or thoughtlessness on the part of a co-worker. We tell “war stories” to demonstrate that we are seasoned veterans, and in part to help ourselves understand the truly unusual and confusing things that happen in our day. It makes sense on an individual level, but it raises important questions about the health of your institution.

If someone was listening to our stories, and had only our words to form their opinion, what would they think about our school? If those negative incidents are the only stories we tell, what does that reveal about us? What are our priorities? What are our values?

You see, you are already telling the story of your institution every day. So why not construct it the way you want it to be told?

At the start of each year at Gamble Montessori, we tell our story. In a nod to the key Montessori lessons, we call it the Gamble Great Lesson. You can see a short version of it, edited for the general public and to fit a predetermined theme, here. We got the idea to tell our story from Brian Cundiff, the Executive Vice President of Operations at LaRosa’s Pizzeria. We had approached him for advice on developing a system for training and supporting teachers who were new to the school. His advice formed a large part of our Teacher:Teacher mentoring program. But he started the meeting by telling us about his company’s founder, Cincinnati legend Buddy LaRosa. Buddy had one goal, Brian told us at the end, he wanted to make the customer smile. That way you knew you had made them happy.

As he explained the LaRosa’s training program to us, Brian kept returning to the story. The program starts with the story, and a related mission statement is posted in a prominent place at every store. Their customer service survey asks, “Did we make you smile?”

We knew we had to tell our story the same way. And we had to tell it repeatedly. LaRosa’s told the story over and over, in different formats. Companies brand theirs onto clothing, signs around the workplace, and advertising. Our friend Marta Donahoe, co-founder of our sister school Clark Montessori and CMStep (an international Montessori teacher training program), explained that the reason you tell a story like this over and over is because “you want them to feel it in their bones.” We understand what she means. The story should become part of who your employees are, and they should be able to embody the values of your institution.

Mentoring LaRosas

Our story is powerful. Not because I am an evocative writer, but because we tell stories of the strength and generosity of our students, and how we have humbly learned from them. It is not uncommon for teachers to cry when they hear it. (It’s not all that unusual for me to cry when I tell it.) Teachers have told me it helps them get through hard days, because they remember the bigger picture of what we are doing. Teachers from other schools approach to say how inspirational the story is, eager to return and tell their own. Our story has garnered a lot of attention in our field, and we have presented to groups how we created it. Krista and I have taught other educators how to tell their story.

The process of writing your story can be uncomfortable, but is not especially difficult.

You can do assignment #1 now, at your computer: Write about a time in your school or in your classroom when a child met or exceeded your expectations for being their best self. This could include an act of kindness, an act of social bravery, a moment of self-discovery a moment of learning, or something else.

Before you start (unless it’s too late, in which case you don’t need to hear this!): Be Brave. Be open to sharing and be open to revising your ideas until you get it right. Then find a friend, or a stranger, and share your stories with them. (We use shoulder partners in our presentation.) Watch their reactions. Ask them for their feedback. Or share them with a co-worker who knows the story. Often a person familiar with the details can tell you the part of the event that resonated with them, remember important details you left out, or point out the parts that you, the storyteller, tell with clear passion. Then tweak the story to emphasize these pieces.

You can do this now, if you have someone nearby, or keep reading and do it later.

You see, you are already telling the story of your institution every day. So why not construct it the way you want it to be told?

Starting from a story is a natural way to go about it, but you can also start from the traits you want to emphasize at your school and work backwards from there. Here is a list of possible traits to prompt your imagination:

 

Kindness Social bravery Leadership
Self-discovery Learning Changing perspective
Grace Courtesy Encouraging others
Patience Responsibility Loyalty
Forgiveness Honesty Compassion
Humility Perseverance Creativity

Of course there are others. You can find them in your school’s motto or vision and mission statements, or the core values if you have those.

Assignment #2: Working from those identified values, brainstorm stories involving your students and staff that show those traits. Then choose one and tell the long version with the extra details that help make it real. You are telling a true story, and you want them to inhabit the moment.

Some people find it easier to work in this direction, from the concepts to the stories rather than starting from the stories and identifying the values.

Gamble’s Great Lesson, which you can read here, features stories about students who exemplify grace and courtesy, who look out for each other, and who accomplished academic feats. It pays homage to the families and teachers who started the school, which is important to us. It shows how we can choose to see every event in a positive light, and that we value grit and inclusivity, and that we –time and again – rise to a challenge. Almost none of these virtues are named in the lesson. Instead they are revealed in the stories we choose to tell. This is the power of a well-chosen story – it conveys a notion far more powerfully than a vision statement or a list of core values.

Once you have assembled your stories, it makes sense to connect them with an overarching narrative or metaphor, and/or place them on a timeline. Our story does a bit of both, talking about the school as if it is a developing child, and using a timeline, which complements the idea of a child growing over time. This is a helpful structure for us, because we have been in existence a short time. I can imagine someone at an older school telling a story structured in sections based on the relevant virtue exhibited, with brief vignettes told rapidly to build a sense of the consistency of the virtues over time.

What qualities do you hope to instill in the people who work there and the people you serve?

When your Great Lesson is finished, and you have worked it out with one or more trusted editors, you must tell the story. You must set aside time, in a formal way, to sit the group down and tell them the story. This “real” telling of the story, as opposed to the video version linked in the opening paragraphs above, should include artifacts. These can be almost anything from professional pictures to trinkets from important events. Ours includes professional graduation pictures of a couple students we mention, a glamour shot of the school, a piece of spiritwear, and a grainy cell phone picture of the senior night basketball game in 2012. Yours is limited to what is easy to display as you tell the story. I sit on the floor in front of my staff, but yours doesn’t have to be. However, the telling must be formal. Tell it to your students. Tell it to your teammates. Tell it to the employees. Tell it to your advertisers. Just tell it. Regularly. We tell it at the start of each school year. Then improve it, add to it, extend it, but keep it the same at its core.

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In every institution there are stories we tell repeatedly. We have done this from the dawn of language. These span from Homeric tales of bravery told around a campfire, to slick advertisements aired during the Super Bowl. Our stories reveal the soul of the society and institutions that created them. The ones we tell over and over are the most important stories. Thursday afternoon I told it to our Teacher:Teacher Mentoring group. Tuesday before that I told it to my entire staff at our annual staff retreat. Sunday night before that I told it to a meeting of our mentors. After telling it to my staff, I invite my staff to tell it to our students.

Tell yours again and again, until your people can feel it in their bones. That is, tell it until everyone deeply understands the values it imparts; then keep telling it because it brings comfort and courage.

We would love to hear your Great Lesson. Send it to us. Do you want feedback on where to start? Just ask.

Good Books: The Checklist Manifesto

-by Jack M. Jose

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It always seemed to happen this way: The parents left the room at the end of the meeting, and walked down the hallway. We resumed our team meeting, addressing the next issue on the agenda. Someone would exclaim, “Rats! Forgot to ask them about the permission slip for the field trip!” And he or she would rush to the door, but the parents were gone.

Or maybe we had forgotten to explain a key upcoming homework assignment, or mention an important project deadline.

This was a chronic experience for each of the teacher teams I was on at Hughes Center. And it turns out that forgetting things is a problem for people in other professions too. I learned a simple and effective solution to this vexing problem in a book about making detailed lists, and following them in order: The Checklist Manifesto.

 

Atul Gawande, a renowned surgeon and author, starts The Checklist Manifesto by differentiating between errors made in the face of great complexity (because we do not know enough), and errors made by ineptitude (because we fail to access or use what we do know). Speaking from his profession as a surgeon, great complexity is a reality of his daily work. We encounter similar complexity as educators – what is the necessary preparation to help a student understand or create an appropriate metaphor, or to know when to solve a problem using the quadratic formula? These are complex, but knowable. As professionals in a particular discipline, we should be expected to have a grasp of the solutions to these intellectual progressions. This is where our expertise is absolutely necessary and irreducible. Checklists cannot necessarily help with this.  Errors of ineptitude or oversight, however, are the kinds of errors that checklists are designed to eliminate. Procedures need to happen in a certain order, and doing them that way creates better outcomes.

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picked up a newer version of The Checklist Manifesto at a book store last year, and saw that it had a new introduction. Though I had read the book years before, I was immediately drawn into the narrative, demonstrating how a checklist was instrumental in helping to safely (and famously) crash land a plane into the Potomac River. More on that later, as I talk more about the book that helped me see the world of my work completely differently. Principals and teachers inhabit a world of tremendous complexity. There are layers of expectations placed on their students, dozens of types of assessments, and countless instructional tools and techniques at their disposal to help their students master the skills necessary for promotion. Within this complexity, there are some processes that repeat somewhat endlessly into the future, processes contained within a single class period, a day, a week, a quarter, a semester and even a year. There are right ways to do many of these regular processes. Checklists are, in this complex environment, a remarkably simple way to make sure we are doing the important things right.

 

Checklists to help with routine events

In 2012, as part of training for principals in Cincinnati Public Schools, a member of the Board of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital spoke about the mistakes made by doctors at the hospital. They had a patient mortality rate of 4.6% in 2001, which had been a very slight improvement on the year before.  This placed them above the middle of the pack for similar hospitals, and had been a point of some pride for earlier leadership. However, they had become dissatisfied with being in the middle of the pack relative to the percentage of children dying in their care. Each number was a tragedy, and there was no excuse for not taking effective measures to prevent them. The Board at Children’s was especially concerned to note that many of these deaths were, in their estimation, preventable. Doctors administering incorrect medicines or doses, doctors and nurses making mistakes that resulted in infections, such as pneumonia acquired while on a ventilator. They instituted a series of reforms which included checklists. At the end of 2011, their mortality rate had been cut dramatically[1].

Gwande provides as an example a different institution, Johns Hopkins hospital, where checklists were instituted for a specific common ventilator procedure. In addition to a clear set of steps posted where all could see them, nurses were given the unusual authority to stop the procedure if a step was missed. Prior to the implementation of the checklist, secondary infections had been the leading cause of complications and deaths at one of the world’s most prestigious medical facilities. This simple addition nearly eliminated those infections.

Checklists are, in this complex environment, a remarkably simple way to make sure we are doing the important things right.

So checklists can help eliminate mistakes as we repeatedly complete important procedures. An example of an academic use for routines is the weekly checklist in the structured classroom. In a typical classroom, a child might receive one or two assignments each day, with varying due dates. Assignments may even be dispensed one at a time. However, a checklist is an important tool in helping a child develop skills related to managing time and work. The Montessori weekly checklist enumerates planned lessons and activities, such as regular reading time for students to encounter challenging and engaging material, teacher-led mini-lessons to provide new content, and shelfwork to help each student develop existing skills. The checklist format aids the student in utilizing her time wisely to complete the necessary work. Powerfully, the checklist in this case serves the “patient” and the “doctor” equally, as utilizing the format from week to week ensures that the necessary modes of instruction are regularly used, instead of a teacher falling back on a favorite or comfortable routine or lesson format.

 

 

Checklists to help with infrequent events

The popular rock band Van Halen’s live performances included massive amplifiers, fireworks, lights, and electric and audio cables spread across entire stadiums. Their shows were memorable, but their demands as a band were legendary and one was individually ridiculous: they demanded M&Ms at every show, with all the brown ones picked out. Their manager explained to Dr. Gawande that it was not because they were pampered celebrities with an aversion to brown candies. Instead, their demanding checklist was created to make sure that the performers and fans were safe on stage every night. There was a lot that could go wrong, especially as the lead singer was hoisted in a harness for a spectacular entry, and fans stood near scaffolding holding massive audio equipment – and did I mention fireworks, water, and electricity? The tour double-checked everything the day they arrived; if there were brown M&Ms in the bowl, they would know that the venue did not pay attention to the details. It was not a frivolous demand; it was a fail-safe to ensure that no one’s safety was at risk.

So checklists can help make sure that an infrequent or even one-time event, such as a Van Halen show in your local arena, happens flawlessly.

I explained earlier that Gawande said checklists could help with errors of ineptitude or oversight, where someone makes a mistake in carrying out a familiar procedure. This is the team meeting problem. We would enter a conversation with a specific objective, and the intention to cover one or two items in particular, such as poor grades, or a particular disciplinary incident. The conversation would address the big issue, and the parent might bring up new and important information. We would wander off-task, fully engaged in the new direction of the conversation. These can be contentious meetings, full of hurt feelings and embarrassment for students and adults alike. It is understandable that everyone involved might forget other, less significant topics momentarily. Perhaps we missed a signature on a permission slip for an upcoming trip, or we failed to make sure the family could access the online gradebook.

Inspired by this book, and motivated by our repeated experience, we created a team meeting checklist. We made a simple list on the bottom of the page, charting the things we might need to cover in a conference. We used our old meeting form with this small addition and we found that we forgot less, and accomplished more, than we had before just by assigning one person to run through the checklist at the end of the meeting, to ensure we hit each topic.

This checklisted sequence of questions works to prevent anger and withdrawal just like a correct sequence of events in a hospital helps to prevent infection.

Okay, so maybe conferences are not life-and-death situations on the surface. And they definitely are not rock-n-roll concerts. However, they can be important moments in a child’s education, and key pivot points in the relationship between a family and the school. Getting things right in the conference – covering the important issues fully, addressing critical needs, and valuing the family’s time – is an important part of building trust and making sure that the student’s needs are met. There are a finite number of things that can potentially be covered in a conference, which have a seemingly infinite number of permutations. A checklist like the one here is an investment in the golden triangle – the relationship between the student, teacher, and parent.

 

Checklists to help in moments of conflict or crisis

Pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger will be the first to tell you that he finds it odd to be famous as a pilot because he crashed a plane. As his passenger jet lifted off from LaGuardia airport in 2009, it struck a flock of geese, causing damage to both jet engines. There could have been dozens of causes. The airline industry, which has an understandable focus on safety, has used checklists for years, and they had one for just this situation. Sully and his copilot were able to speed twice through this troubleshooting checklist before deciding they needed to look for the safest possible place to land a plane in Manhattan. He chose the Hudson River, and there were – famously – no deaths. He attributes his clear thinking to his familiarity with the checklist. The process for eliminating all possible causes reduced his panic and allowed him the time to find the best place to crash land.

Checklists can not only be used to make sure that the necessary steps all happen in a moment of high tension or anxiety, they can also work to make sure that steps happen in the correct order. At Gamble Montessori high school, we realized that when students returned from suspension, that they felt dislocated from the school – out of touch with what they had missed in class, and still feeling as if their teachers distrusted or disliked them because of the incident. So we instituted a return conference checklist, which we explain in more detail in our post Welcome Back. We had learned from experience that these steps had to happen in a certain order. Too often, these conferences after an incident immediately start with a description from someone at the school of what happened. The student often would react one of two ways: they would either dispute the details of what was being said, or they would sit in silence and mentally remove themselves from the conference. We know that a student in this mindset will not be a partner in problem-solving for the future. So we turned the old, ineffective conference model on its head. Our checklist starts with a non-negotiable step where every adult at the table offers a strength that they see in the child. Only later in the conference is there a brief description of the incident followed not with accusations and a re-hashing of the event, but with everyone involved being asked to partner in helping the student be successful moving forward.

This checklisted sequence of questions works to prevent anger and withdrawal just like a correct sequence of events in a hospital helps to prevent infection. The student, having been welcomed back with a shared awareness and acknowledgement of his strengths, gets to become a partner in problem-solving how to help himself be successful moving forward. The intentional sequence of events works to help students return to school ready to learn.

Ordered checklists, simple lists of routines and important processes, are tremendously useful in many professional situations, including education. Whether in routine events, infrequent occurrences, or moments of conflict, having a list of the correct sequence of steps to try can help make sure we reach the best possible outcome for all involved.

Perhaps there are processes for which you already use effective checklists, or there are processes at your school that need to be “checklisted.”

We would love to hear your ideas in the comments below.

[1] “Newsroom.” Cincinnati Children’s Earns National Award for Patient Safety. Jim Feuer, n.d. Web. 30 July 2016.

Talking About Tragedy

-by Jack M. Jose

Events of the past two weeks have shocked the nation. Videos of the police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile have been widely spread, and even more widely discussed and debated. The shooting of 11 Dallas police officers, leaving 5 dead, while they escorted a Black Lives Matter march, created a national crisis. Then a truck ran into a large crowd in Nice, France, killing 84 people. And Sunday morning’s news brought the deaths of 3 more police officers in Baton Rouge. … Or perhaps you are reading this article after these events have faded; in that case you can likely fill in your own tragic “news of the week” that has created a comparable feeling of anxiety and dread.

Whether on television, at the newsstand, or on Facebook or other social media, the headlines always proclaim something to fear.

Our children arrive at school with questions and concerns. They have seen horrific images. They have heard of deaths and worse. Perhaps their parents have shielded them from it, and they’ve learned about it in the halls, or perhaps their parents have involved them in the discussion, have added on their own fears and conjecture. We know that when the world of safety and well-being is at risk, our bodies produce adrenaline, and we are unable to master even short-term memory tasks, let alone take on the deep learning demanded today. Our students, less familiar with the news and thus less able to deal with the experience of the stress reaction, are even less capable of dealing with it. They cannot just “forget about it” or even push it to the side for too long.

Students often worry about national and international events they see on the news.
Students often worry about national and international events they see on the news.

What do you do when you can’t ignore it, and an outside tragedy simply has to be addressed in your classroom? There are a series of questions to guide you through the process of addressing fears, whether it is the questioning of a single child or a group of wary adults. Through the lens of these four questions, we can start to address the difficult work of talking about tragedy. For the purpose of unification of the article, the Philando Castile shooting will remain the primary (though not the only) example throughout.

What do you know?

With younger children, “What do you know?” is an obvious first question. (It is especially handy when you suspect there is a “birds and bees” question coming. Often, “what do you know” lets you start a couple levels easier than you thought!) This gives you a chance to assess what the student(s) know, and to determine what, if any, misconceptions they may have about the situation. The same is true for our adolescents and even adults engaging in a conversation. Asking “what do you know” is a great start to any discussion, because it grounds it in facts.

The teacher is a helpful guide in this conversation, and she must be diligent in her attention to details. It is important that there is precision in language, and that the individuals involved are spoken about respectfully. For example, if discussing the shooting of Philando Castile, our conventions of discussion would dictate that we refer to him as Mr. Castile, and to the officer involved as Officer Yanez. Later we might need to look up the names of Mr. Castile’s girlfriend, and the other officer involved to facilitate the conversation. We might point out that news agencies would be unlikely to publish the young girl’s name, because she is a minor and responsible media generally respect the right of privacy for minors. These conventions of manners and civility retain the dignity of those who are being discussed, and thus uphold our own classroom values. We can establish the city in which the event occurred, the date and time, and other factual information.

Insisting on civility and the facts is tremendously reassuring. The knowledge that an effort is being made to be objective and to get things right helps calm our students. Refusing to use loaded language such as “resisting” or “assassination”, with the explanation that these words are characterization rather than facts, will keep the conversation in a more rational spot.  It can also create order and reason among students who, especially in a case such as this, may have very different and strongly emotional interpretations of the significance of the event.

What do you fear?

This is an important second question, and the one that most clearly allows you to address the fears of the individual students. By asking this question, you will get to peek inside their minds, in a sense, and find out what drives their strong reaction. Using the example above, a student might express a fear that their own father or uncle might be at risk, and you might learn that their concern stems from that individual being a black man, or an officer, or both … or neither.

The fears of children can be outsized and, in our minds, irrational. However, dismissing their concerns out-of-hand is not reassuring. In their book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish remind us that in order to stay in good communication with our children, at any age, we must first accept their viewpoint as valid. If a child expresses a fear that police will go around shooting more and more people, the teacher must resist the urge to laugh or mock this viewpoint. “That’s ridiculous, you don’t have to worry about that,” might seal the deal for an adult, but it is not reassuring to a child. In fact, it will likely damage their trust in you, and make it less likely that they will open up to you in the future, since they will then know their viewpoint will not be seen as valid.

Instead, if a fear seems outsized or irrational, it should be treated with respect, and revisited with examples and gentle questions. “Why do you worry about that?” is a good follow-up question. This might elicit a specific incident in the child’s past that opens up a related set of fears. Or, it might prompt the child to self-examine. In this questioning, the student himself might note that although he saw this one video, that in fact he knows several adults who have stories about being pulled over and this has not happened to them. The teacher might provide other related facts, perhaps about the number of traffic stops daily that pass without incident, or an investigation of what draws people to become a police officer. The desire to help others, which is a common answer to that question, does not correlate well with an eagerness to shoot others.

The teacher must guard herself against personalizing the issue. It is a powerful human tendency to treat our personal experience as if it is proof of something true when, at best, it is merely a pixel of evidence in a much larger picture. That does not mean that her perspective and experience are not true or a valuable part of the conversation; it does, however, mean that it should not be treated as the end of the discussion on that matter.

Whether on television, at the newsstand, or on Facebook or other social media, the headlines always proclaim something to fear

I was teaching at Hughes High School in Cincinnati in April, 2001 when 19 year old Timothy Thomas was shot and killed by Officer Steven Roach, kicking off weeks of civil unrest in our city. I was a white teacher in a classroom of predominantly black students, and we found ourselves involved in a challenging conversation about the incident. My most vocal students were advocating for running from the police, perhaps just to show me their attitude toward authority, or perhaps for other reasons. By using the Socratic method of questioning, I helped the students have a fact-based and growth-focused conversation about the incident. As we covered the details we knew, a student pointed out that Mr. Thomas ran because he was scared. I asked, “And how did Officer Roach probably feel?” Students offered, “angry,” “salty” (slang for “embarrassed”) and then one student said, “Awwww!” and the room went quieter. “No,” this student exclaimed, aware that he’d had an important insight.  “He was feeling scared too, running down a dark alley after some guy.” This changed the conversation for us, as some of the students had not considered the perspective of each person involved, just the person who was most like them.

Sometimes the fear a child expresses is completely rational. The child whose mother is a police officer is understandably afraid for her safety when she is at work. A child might fear what could happen if his father got pulled over by police. When these fears are expressed, there is not a statement to be used as a talisman to push them away. There should not even be a desire to push them away. Fear is real. Fear is personal. It is not, in itself, irrational. Attempting to simply soothe someone’s fear or to make them feel better is not the answer. Understanding and sympathy – literally “feeling with” – are the best tools at our disposal. “I am certain that you worry about that. I am sorry that it causes you anxiety.” Feeling heard and understood is good medicine for fear.

What do you hope?

Taking the discussion from the realm of fear to the realm of hope can be a pivotal moment in a conversation, and a transformative moment in the classroom. Asking this question next allows the group to move on from the discussion of our fears – where, sadly, we may compound each others’ fears, as students now hear new things which make them scared – to a more positive focus.

One important change the question “What do you hope?” brings about is greater involvement in the conversation. Some students may have sat out the first part of the conversation because they did not know as much as their peers, or because their thoughts were being well-represented by other students, or because they were simply uncomfortable sharing their fears with others. Some may not have gotten involved because they feel no direct connection to the incident. However, we are all creative, and those students whose voices were not heard during the discussion of our fears are often interested in describing their vision of the world as it could be.

Frankly, children are really good at “hope.” Their optimistic eyes can see opportunities for peace and cooperation that we adults have long since stopped being able to see. And like in the “fears” discussion, the teacher will receive some ideas that she, with her age and wisdom, might feel tempted to dispel. Fortunately, I probably do not have to tell anyone that you should not say to a child, “Well, we can’t ALL love EVERYBODY.” So they will propose a more perfect vision of the future that may exclude violence, or eliminates the need for police, or may likely come up with something we cannot even image. The correct answer for this is “Wouldn’t that be great!” Meanwhile, the teacher can still root the optimism to reality. The child who suggests “We can make it so the police don’t shoot,” might get a response that “Yes, perhaps with different training this could happen.” The switch in the conversation is not merely semantic, however. The human brain needs to experience optimism, and can be trained to do it.  A student proposing a majestic, sweeping solution can be helped to make it more specific, which makes it less ethereal and more likely to occur – a solution rather than a dream. Tamar Chansky, author of Freeing Your Child From Anxiety, acknowledges that creating realistic steps within an optimistic view helps redirect the anxiety into a constructive state of mind. This makes the situation survivable, and thus more mundane.

Insisting on civility and the facts is tremendously reassuring

This question also engages us – students and teachers – intellectually, and gets us out of our amygdala and into the rest of our brain. We are also heartbroken by these events, and the sense of powerlessness we feel to affect change. This question is more than an exercise, it is a form of therapy. We cannot resist problem solving under most conditions. It is a strong evolutionary trait (coupled with the also-indispensable ability to worry about the future) that has treated us well over time.

17k53yHow can you act?

Fred Rogers, longtime host of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, would get scared seeing tragic events on TV as a child. His mother would tell him, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” He says that this thought brings him comfort to this day. All around us, in every situation, there are people who are helping rather than hurting. It brings him comfort because it draws us out of helplessness into our sphere of influence and allows us a chance to take action.

What do we know? What do we fear? What do we hope? How can we help?

When we learned that Philando Castile had been a cafeteria supervisor in a Montessori school, members of the Montessori community in Cincinnati wanted to do something specific and positive to honor his life. We reached out to one another on Facebook. A small group met at Gamble on the Wednesday after the event to brainstorm a response. What we came up with was a three-part response. First, we agreed to act in our own backyard. In response to a suggestion that we should put a picture of Philando Castile on our cafeteria, which we rejected, it was proposed that instead we honor our own cafeteria workers with a picture in a prominent place. We also sent a peace lily to Mr. Castile’s funeral, with the message “To the Family & Friends of Philando Castile – Our hearts are full of love and sorrow as your family and our country mourn the loss and celebrate the life of your son, brother, and friend. In sympathy, Cincinnati Public Schools, Montessori Coalition.”

Then we turned to the issue of talking with our students, staff and parents. We acknowledged that this conversation would vary based on the age of our students. Elementary schools were likely going to plan for a different type of conversation than our high schools. Within our own conversation we were able to anticipate challenges of underlying biases and beliefs. We acknowledged the importance of setting up an opportunity for our parents and staff to talk in a safe place. We were learning to dance together, we realized. We had to make it okay to step on each others’ toes without quitting. This was true for the teachers and administrators, and would be true in our classrooms, and in our PTO meetings as well, where a great diversity of opinions would be aired. Creating this atmosphere starts with an overt statement at the beginning of the conversation: at least one of us is likely to say something unintentionally hurtful or offensive, but we all have made ourselves vulnerable by attending this conversation. We have to respect and value that risk.

With our staff, we agreed to participate in an awareness-raising activity, to help our teachers be aware that each of us are struggling with hidden issues and concerns.

In the proper structure, and given a safe place to express fears and ideas, students can come up with some impressive solutions. This conversation will always be emotional, challenging, and exhausting, but difficult conversations frequently are. Following these steps will help create a better sense of understanding and efficacy among all involved.

No Failure of Nerve

-by Jack M. Jose

Often we have used this blog to talk about our strengths – strategies we have used at Gamble Montessori that have resulted in a greater sense of student belonging, or increased learning. In this post, however, we examine a philosophy that seems at odds with our character as a student-centered Montessori blog. The book at the heart of this post, A Failure of Nerve by Edwin Friedman, challenged me like few other books have. I struggled with it, I denied its value, I argued its premise, while feeling a strong undertow of truth. In fact, even though it prompted strong and decisive action on my part, it may have been only in this week that I have come to fully understand its underlying message, and how it fully fits with what we do here.

This week (June 14, 2016), I had the pleasure of listening to and talking with Dr. Steve Perry. We had invited him to the Cincinnati Public Schools’ principal retreat for a shot of adrenaline and encouragement at the end of the year. We already knew his commitment to children. Dr. Perry received the honor of being featured in CNN’s Black in America series because of his success in his Hartford, Connecticut magnet school, Capital Prep. One measure of his success is that 100% of his predominantly minority and impoverished students have gone on to 4-year colleges, every year since 2006. He is a dynamic and engaging speaker, and an advocate for the potential of every child.

Jack with Dr. Steve Perry
Jack with Dr. Steve Perry at the 2016 Cincinnati Public Schools Principal Academy

During his presentation, he talked about times when he had to draw tough lines which could not be crossed by parents or teachers. I found myself drawn to him because he seemed to have great comfort and facility, and to even revel in drawing these hard lines. Lines that many of us are not comfortable drawing. Conversations few of us seek out. I suspect that I may be even less willing to draw these lines than the typical principal.

He seemed to particularly relish taking a righteous stand in consistent defense of the dress code. He exuberantly recounted exerting his authority against the wills of those teachers who wanted to wear jeans to school, “Are you kidding me?” he asked us facetiously, drawing laughter from the crowd of principals and assistant principals. Likewise, to the parent who suggested a special day when students, perhaps as a fundraiser, could come to school without their uniforms, “Are you nuts?” Laughter again, spurred on by his deadpan delivery. Perhaps we were all drawing the mental picture of having the occasion to ask those words of a parent – I am sure we each had a particular parent in mind – and then actually delivering them to her face. I laughed nervously, wondering why he would take a stand so strong the dress code, on a matter seemingly so trivial.

He admitted to finally relenting and explaining his seriousness to the parent. The dress code was so stringently enforced because he knew that some of his poorest students’ best clothes were their school uniform clothes. What message did he send if, in the interest of raising funds for whatever deserving cause, the rules designed to create a greater sense of dignity and equality for students could be discarded. “So her kid could wear her new jeans to school?” He paused for effect. “No.” And to the teachers, to whom he offered no explanation, the implication was that they should clearly know better than to send a message to children that teachers were granted privileges not given to the students, and were thus in some way above them. Or to suggest that less was asked of teachers in the classroom than was asked of the students. It is clear that this should not happen in a school where everyone is a learner.

I admit it was thrilling, inspiring even, to hear a principal speak so brashly. So forcefully. When the time is right, I hope I can muster the needed moxie. I wonder, what are the issues that are this serious? As the phrase goes, on what hills are we willing to die? Dress code, promotion, good instruction, respect, homework, safety?

I invite you to join me as I ask myself that question. On what hills are YOU willing to die? What issues are worth taking a non-negotiable stand? How do you decide?

Dr. Perry is famous and influential and controversial not just because he takes these stands, but because he has created successful schools in multiple places. He has done it his way, with confidence, and bravado. He has stepped on some toes along the way, and has been willing to offend those who he felt provided obstacles to his goals for the school. I do not seek to emulate him in this, or recommend that others do. I suspect even he doesn’t act that way all the time, as he also expressed a sincere personal commitment to learning from everyone he encounters. But there is evidence that it is important to take strong, non-negotiable stands on some things. Without clear boundaries, the student and the classroom and the school are left confused, their possibilities unfulfilled.

In sociologist Edwin H. Friedman’s book A Failure of Nerve_, published posthumously, the author worked to summarize the findings of a life spent examining leadership.

Failure of Nerve

Three years ago I was asked to read this book as a vestry member – an elected leader in my church – by our newly hired Dean, Gail Greenwell. She meant it as a challenge to us, I believe, to be willing to do unpopular things in order to do what is right for the organization. Given that the nature of the advice in the book is that there are appropriate times to exclude people from your community, I eventually came to find irony in its selection as a book for a church that prides itself on inclusion. I read it, cover to cover, with notes and underlines and dog-ears up to the last page before the epilogue. It was a tough slog, being as it was stitched together by his editor and family members after his death (this is not necessarily a book recommendation!) and, just between us, I think I was the only person on the vestry to get through the whole thing. I suddenly find myself wondering which vestry members might actually read my blog. I guess I will find out Sunday!

In short, Friedman argues the need for boundaries, and lays the responsibility of the health of the organization squarely on the shoulders of the leader. First, though, he argues that the leader must embody the change. “If you want your child, spouse, client, or boss to shape up, stay connected while changing yourself rather than trying to fix them,” (page ix) and later, “what counts is the leader’s presence and being, not technique and know-how.” (page 17)

Physician, heal thyself!

This is his challenging call to the leader: you only must transform yourself. This is far harder for a leader who prides himself on being inclusive and supportive, and who perseveres in the belief that each of us is capable of success.

In discussing a community as an organism, he suggests that a focus on empathy rather than responsibility can allow a “virus” to survive, and eventually consume the organism. He argues that the “virus” is the individual who has no ability to self-regulate, who is “by nature all take and no give.” While he gave the example of attempts to work out a “mutual accommodation” of Hitler prior to the onset of World War II, where various efforts were made to appease Hitler. One of these was the Munich pact, which handed a key portion of Czechoslovakia over to the dictator. A year later, the country did not exist, and the Germans invaded Poland. From Friedman’s book, a less dramatic example persists in my recollection, nearly four years after my first reading.

On what hills are YOU willing to die? What issues are worth taking a non-negotiable stand? How do you decide?

Dr. Friedman was a panelist at a convention, and the time came to take questions from the audience. His comments had elicited some strong feelings, and one woman crowded her way through the line, commandeered a microphone, and demanded to be heard. The decision fell to an organizer of the event, and he allowed the woman to speak. This was a failure of leadership, or a failure of nerve, according to Friedman, to allow her to speak simply because she was so passionate. She was permitted to impose herself on the entire organization, the entire convention. Not surprisingly, her comments did not bring up a new perspective, instead becoming a jeremiad against Mr. Friedman and other panelists. The whole process disrespected those who lined up according to the instructions, it insulted the panelists, it offered nothing new to the conversations and was instead a plea for the individuals to abandon their years of research and deeply held beliefs in order to accommodate her feelings.

There are parallels to this behavior in the classroom, PTO meeting, or the school office. We have seen the student or the parent who has decided that their immediate needs and strong feelings should take precedence over the schedule and the rules.

When should you take a stand? Certainly for matters of safety. For instance, a child who crosses a street out of the crosswalk deserves a strong response and quick correction. That behavior is not acceptable because it is not safe. This is not controversial.

However, what about the dress code? What about promotion and retention? What about crowding in line? What about civil discourse?

Each year, one or more parents schedule a meeting with me in the early summer to make the argument that their child should be promoted to the next grade, regardless of their academic achievement and effort. In almost all of these meetings, there are real – and sometimes heartbreaking – explanations of why that child did not complete the work at home and did not achieve promotion. We provide countless supports in the classroom. Students have differentiated work, reduced homework loads, support from the teacher and intervention specialist, after-school support, and on some teams “amnesty days” where old work can be turned in. Parents have unprecedented access to their child’s grades through an online gradebook system, we send home paper report cards 8 times a year, we have student-led conferences at least twice a year, the second time focused on students who are not thriving academically, along with open houses and multiple modes for parents to reach teachers.

I ask my teachers to do everything they can to assist students. We are all accountable for learning and promotion. However, at some point the student owns the responsibility for doing the work. If I were to yield in this conversation, it would disrespect their work and the work of other students, some of whom encountered their own personal heartbreaks and struggles during the year. Standards mean something.

To the parent of the child who makes a compelling and emotional appeal about the effect of non-promotion on their child: I understand. What you are saying is true. It is also true that the standards mean something. Effort means something. No child who works hard and makes progress will fail. Failure, however, to meet a given standard, is not the end of the story. It is a moment. We love the child the most when we say “you have not reached this high standard … yet. But you will.”

The disrespect of promoting a child who fell short of the standard because of a passionate plea of a loving parent would be one of the symptoms of the “virus”, and the effect on the system would be immediate and apparent. A student who sees someone trying less but still getting promoted, may seek an easier way out next year, and might feel that their hard work is not valued. They might resent the inconsistency and lose trust in the system. And the child herself would know that she had been given, not a gift, but a pass. This child would get the implicit message from her teachers, “we didn’t think you could do it.” Allowing this to happen would demonstrate a failure of nerve, according to Friedman, a failure of leadership.

In this regard, though, we understand that teachers are not students. Their stakes are higher. A failure by a teacher to meet the needs of a child, by being disrespectful to a student, by not challenging students fully, by physically invading their space or by failing to call them by their given names, is a different infraction. This must be met strenuously, and can’t so easily be forgiven. A teacher should never be the virus.

Not every line we draw at school is non-negotiable. Not every infraction requires the hardline response. At Gamble, promotion is one of those non-negotiables- there are clear expectations and you must meet them. For Dr. Perry in Hartford, the dress code was one (of many).

What are your non-negotiables? Comment with a time you made a hard stand on an issue.

Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most

-by Jack M. Jose

Years ago, after the last day of school, I was rushing to clean up my room and finishing items on my check-out sheet. I was trying diligently to accomplish the work that stood between me and my hard-earned summer. I was hot and tired, it felt like I had been battling my students for the last two weeks of school. I was ready to be finished.

Jerry walked into the room with a friend of his I had seen a couple of times. Jerry and I had battled all year. He seemed impervious to encouragement, scolding, poor grades, phone calls home, conferences, and other tactics I could manage in the early stages of my teaching career. He insisted on not doing much work outside of the classroom, and seemed satisfied with the mix of Ds and Fs on his report card.

“I’m out, Mr. Jose. I’m gone and you ain’t gonna see me again, I’m done with this place.” He waived a withdrawal paper in my direction. “Bye.”

In my frustration, and exhaustion, I dismissed him. “Well, go on then. What’s the difference, you weren’t doing much work anyway.”

His entire disposition changed, and his next words were spoken with an edge of hurt and anger. “Alright, well I see how it is. Fine then.” He started for the door, but turned around to deliver the final words, “And fuck you.” He gestured to his friend who followed him into the emptying hallways and out the front door of the building.

Now, this was not exactly a difficult conversation, in the sense of a conversation where an important message had to be delivered and understood. This was a simple, short impromptu exchange between a teacher and a student. The way that I screwed the conversation up is apparent in the re-telling, but very human in the moment. Here is what I missed, upon reflection: a student who I had struggled with all year, in whom I had invested hours of calls, meetings, papers getting corrected, and conversations at his desk and in the hallway, was looking forward to leaving the school where he struggled. Before he left, however, he stopped in to see me. I believed at first that he had shown up to tell me off, and so I sort of beat him to the punch. My response to him was, essentially, “Good riddance.” Only after time could I see that he was probably more eager to leave the school and be done than I was, and yet he went out of his way, up to my second floor classroom, to visit me. I see now that there is another, better interpretation of his visit. This young man, who struggled with school, and who had finished his last day and was in fact leaving the school for good, stuck around at the end of the day to come see me and to tell me he was leaving. It is apparent to me that quite possibly he appreciated my effort, and felt that we had forged a connection. I was worth sticking around for, on the last day of school.

Periodically, it becomes clear that a particular topic for the blog, or a particular skill or habit we practice at Gamble Montessori, was derived almost entirely from one particular book, (Or, as in the post “Giving an A”, one particular chapter of a book.) This post is similar. However, instead of being a memory of a book that helped in the past, this book arises both because it made an impact AND because it still has some wisdom to impart. That book is Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most (Stone, Douglas; Patton, Bruce, and Heen, Sheila, 1999.)

One of my cousins confessed to me that he really didn’t ever enjoy coming to church, so he only came a couple times a year. We had just attended a holiday ceremony with our extended family and were walking out of the nave. He marveled aloud at how each time “the sermon seems to be talking to me, about me.” He stopped the act of loosening his tie and made eye contact with me. “It’s spooky. If I didn’t know better, I’d think there was something to this church thing.”

That is how I feel about Difficult Conversations. It is downright discouraging to note that almost every word in the introduction about the need for this book – especially the unwillingness of people to have the hard conversations necessary to sustain their most vital relationships – seems to fit my ongoing situation, and me personally. It’s spooky.

DaringGreatly-EngagedFeedback-8x10
In her book Daring Greatly, Brene Brown discusses the power of vulnerability – revealing your mistakes or flaws to make it okay for other people to show theirs. Vulnerability, paired with contribution, can be a pathway to powerful and life-altering conversations.

The work of teachers and administrators is fraught with difficult conversations, especially this time of the year. The student whose 4th quarter push fell short, the parent frustrated with a disciplinary action taken late in the year, questions about the evaluation of adults in the building, from paraprofessionals to the principal, all bring challenges to the professional’s judgment and integrity.

One reassurance I take from this book is the authors’ constant reminder that avoiding hard conversations is a common human coping strategy. Our jobs are hard, life is complicated, and things will eventually sort themselves out. So we all avoid.

Of course, I can’t detail most of the hard conversations I have, or the ones I haven’t had. Their intensity and their private nature is what makes them so hard to have, and makes them unfit for sharing here.

In outline, Difficult Conversations examines the ways that each hard discussion is like the others. While acknowledging that there are many different kinds of important hard conversations, each of those conversations have three definable conversations happening within them.

The “What Happened?” Conversation – this occurs when something important goes wrong, due to miscommunication or other factors, and the participants cannot discuss the issues below the surface that created the conflict. Some teachers’ relationships are so strained from past experiences that when they need to work together to accomplish a goal, they struggle to address each other. Even when something insignificant happens, they fail to communicate effectively, and cannot address the issue, instead retreating into blame, which solves nothing.

The Feelings Conversation – in conflict, especially in the professional world, we attempt to eliminate feelings to stay focused on “business.” However, these conversations are hard because they deal primarily with feelings, and failing to acknowledge and address them keeps the conflict alive even if the current issue seems resolved. Krista reminds me of this all the time. Often this is inseparable from the “What Happened” conversation, except that when the feelings, especially of disrespect, go unaddressed, the “What Happened” conversation can never get fully resolved.

The Identity Conversation – in every exchange, each individual is conscious of what their stance and the outcome reveal about them, the speaker. These conversations are often a challenge not because of their importance to the company or the relationship, but because they force us to confront and perhaps question a deeply held belief about ourselves. For instance, a teacher might not want to speak with me about their interaction with a student that led to a conflict with the student. A teacher who sees herself as a loving advocate for students might not want to face the suggestion that she mishandled the interaction with a student, or to learn that there is something to do to repair the relationship.

In these conversations, we consistently take a limited amount of knowledge, that portion derived from our own perspective and experience, and we draw all of our conclusions from that incomplete starting point. We also make judgments about the other person based on our past experience with them.

Our human tendency to misunderstand another’s actions, what is described in the book as the “first mistake” in judging others’ intentions, caused me to horribly bungle the interaction with Jerry on the last day of school. I believed I knew his intentions, and responded to that belief, rather than to his words. In doing so, I made a mistake that I can never repair. Fortunately, I can learn from my experiences, and not repeat the mistake. Well, not that PARTICULAR mistake!

His next words were spoken with an edge of hurt and anger. “Alright, well I see how it is. Fine then.” He started for the door, but turned around to deliver the final words, “And fuck you.”

Instead of having the “what happened” conversation at all, we both acted on emotions. I was reacting to my personal frustration and tiredness without regard to Jerry’s situation at all. Instead of addressing feelings, we left them below the surface of our words, sharp rocks just under the waters offshore. What if I had expressed just my feelings, “Jerry, I need to say that this news is so frustrating for me. I feel like I worked really hard with you this year, and that you are sort of throwing that away.” How differently would that exchange have gone? Finally, there is the identity conversation. I put Jerry in a place where he needed to show his friend he controlled the situation and that he did not need school. I put him there because in that moment, my view of myself as an effective teacher had been severely damaged.

Instead, I attacked. Stone, Patton, and Heen effectively address the common conversational misstep that always feels like an attack: the tendency to assign blame, typically to someone other than ourselves. This is not a type of conversation, it is a tendency to pre-litigate the situation in our heads, then have the whole conversation as if trying to prove that it was someone’s fault, rather than to determine the best way forward. As a teacher, it is a simple habit to assign blame to the student; as an administrator, to the teacher or student. This is a common cause of conflict between people in working relationships, especially between teachers and students. Perhaps you have seen a version of this conversation play out in your classroom: “You didn’t do the work correctly/completely.” “Well, you didn’t explain the assignment very clearly.” This creates conflict from the outset of the conversation, and is often resolved by the teacher “pulling rank,” and the unintended consequence is the student feeling like he is no longer in a cooperative environment, and is instead fighting against the assignment and the teacher.

Many of us chose teaching or education-related fields because we want to help others. I suspect this is why I commonly find others – and myself – making a special version of the blame mistake: blaming themselves. This can often lead to avoidance, meaning important conversations don’t happen at all.

Here is how that happens. A teacher fails to turn in an assignment, such as a printout of their grade distribution, at the end of the quarter. Instinctively, I think “that teacher usually does a really good job at handing things in on time, I must not have communicated very clearly.” Then I make a note for how to nudge them, perhaps by adding a friendly reminder in the bulletin, or mentioning it in the blog, hoping, perhaps in futility, that they will read it and amend their ways. I feel good because I gently reminded them, indirectly without blame or confrontation. Meanwhile, the teacher might remain blissfully unaware; either they have forgotten about the assignment, or they are too busy to complete it at this time (and probably too busy to closely review the bulletin or read the blog), or they thought they turned it in. In short, they are not benefiting from the lack of a conversation, and the work is not getting done.

That is the heart of these difficult conversations. In all of the places where the gears of the school are grinding instead of smoothly meshing, there is a challenging conversation to be had. In each, all three conversations – what happened, feelings, and identity – need to be acknowledged. The inclination to blame should be repressed.

Instead of blame, one should focus the conversation on “contribution” instead. Perhaps all of the aspects mentioned above are contributing factors – perhaps notification could have been clearer or more pervasive, and perhaps the teacher was very busy and deprioritized the important work of examining their quarterly grades. Focusing on contribution allows for the reality that inactions or mistakes often have multiple causes. Reality is messy. However, the work still needs to get done. In this case the hard conversation needs to be initiated by the person who recognizes the problem, and needs to be had promptly, preferably with neutral language. For instance, rather than addressing my concern passively through the bulletin, I might approach the teacher and say, “Good morning, my records indicate that you did not turn in your grade distribution at the end of this quarter.” This wording feels very different from “why didn’t you turn in …” which clearly (and perhaps inaccurately) assigns blame to the teacher. In this case, the teacher could identify the problem, and provide information. “That’s odd, I thought I sent it to you already. Did you see the email I sent entitled ‘Pesky B’s’? It seems like every class had a large percentage of B’s, which struck me as odd.”

Here is what I did:

  • I named the situation (you did not turn in your grade distribution)
  • I identified how it came to my attention (my records indicate)
  • I stripped blame from the statement while still naming the concern
  • I allowed for any possibility in the answer – seeking contribution, and allowing for the possibility that my records were flawed

Focusing on contribution allows me to have the conversation with the teacher without blaming, and without violating my “identity conversation” with myself – that I see myself as a fair and supportive teacher-leader, rather than a demanding principal. And in this case, the teacher was able to address the issue without blame, and point out that the work had been submitted in a format I was not expecting. Accountability was maintained, my opinion of the teacher was confirmed, and I did nothing to discount their professionalism.

Even as I recount successes and failures, it is clear that this book’s most powerful use is as a reference kept within arm’s length of your workstation, to be consulted whenever a hard conversation presents itself. If you are human, like me, this will often come in handy.

 

 

 

“CUES Cast” Center for Urban Educational Studies

The Hamilton County Center for Urban Educational Studies explores best practices for teachers working in urban environments, especially in the greater Cincinnati / Hamilton County area.  Their mission is to provide support and resources to teachers searching to improve outcomes for their students.

Krista and I were honored to be interviewed for the UrbanESC podcast this April, where we had a chance to talk about the great work being done at Gamble Montessori every day, and to advocate for socio-emotional learning for all students as a way to equip them with the tools necessary to exhibit grit while also demonstrating grace and courtesy.

We are thankful to Paul Smith and Jason Haap for inviting us on their program, and asking thoughtful questions about the work we – and so many others – find profoundly fulfilling. We encourage you to follow this link to the podcast, then respond here: react, comment, question – we would love to hear from you.

What important questions did not get asked? What details did we leave out?

Here is the direct address of the podcast:  http://www.urbanesc.org/2016/04/04/angels-and-superheroes/

 

Lead by Helping Others Lead

-by Jack M. Jose

Getting suggestions has never been a problem for a school administrator. When I transitioned from being a teacher to being a principal, I noticed a significant change in how people started sentences when they spoke to me. Instead of offering me congratulations or encouragement, parents and friends were offering me … advice. Suddenly “You should …” became a common conversational opening. When I was a teacher I did not field many suggestions about what to do in my classroom. But now that I had completed 15 years of teaching, and my second post-Bachelor’s degree, and had been selected by a group of teachers, community members, and others to lead a school, I was clearly always in need of one more unsolicited idea. Principals, apparently, exude the impression that they are grasping for suggestions, and need input on every step, from the most mundane idea to ideas that would completely transform the nature of the school. Among suggestions I received: “You should paint that curb yellow,” “You should secretly rank your students and report that to colleges,” “You should do away with the bell schedule,” and “You should require everyone to get two credits of home economics.” Often suggestions are helpfully couched with evidence of dubious merit, usually stated “Like they did in my high school.”

Lead by Helping Others Lead

Of course, I am exaggerating the nature of the suggestions and (somewhat less so) their frequency. In fact, deftly handling suggestions is an important part of the work of any leader. The best leaders involve a wide array of individuals in the act of molding all aspects of the school, and find ways to let others lead.

More than a decade ago, prior to moving to Gamble, I was involved in discussions surrounding the reorganization of a public school in Cincinnati with an eye toward creating a teacher-led school. The goal was to create a system whereby teachers would collectively make the key decisions about the school – program structure, schedule, disciplinary decisions – and the administrator would serve largely to assist in making those decisions happen using his (my newly-acquired) administrative status. (Only now does it occur to me to have been something of a backhanded compliment. On the one hand, perhaps I was seen to be collaborative; on the other hand, perhaps I was perceived as potentially a weak administrator. I choose to go with the first understanding.) I know that when I was a teacher working daily with other trusted, hard-working teachers, constantly acting with the best interests of the students in mind, this seemed a logical conclusion in the evolution of schools. Who better to make the decisions than those of us closest to the “front lines”?

Well, the pie-in-the-sky hope did not come to fruition. And since then, time and again, the structure in CPS schools – and almost everywhere else – has remained largely static and hierarchical. There is a principal, one individual making the final call on the entire range of decisions; size and budget permitting, there may be one or more assistant principals; finally, there are teacher leaders, both in name and stipend, and in energy and spirit.

Though that particular effort to create a teacher-led school was unsuccessful, the concept itself is not misguided or even ill-fated. In fact, any school can be a teacher-led school, provided the administrator is willing to let it happen. Below are suggestions for a controlled, thoughtful way that an administrator can share authority with teachers. These are all strategies that have been applied regularly, albeit imperfectly, at Gamble Montessori. The first hurdle in utilizing these suggestions is having an administrator who wishes to involve teachers directly in the process of decision-making and responsibility-taking.

Sharing responsibility and decision-making with teachers, parents, and students is not a novel concept in education. Nor is it a new thought in any business model to involve front-line employees in making the most important decisions. Stephen Covey in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People discusses this sharing of the work and decision-making as the difference between mere management and true leadership. Benjamin and Rosamund Zander, in The Art of Possibility, call it “Leading from any Chair,” and describe this as the most important aspect of leadership. In the end, it creates not just a better product, but a shared sense of accomplishment and ownership.

Listening to suggestions:

First, a leader must find an intentional way to elicit input from others involved in the task. Listening to suggestions is best exemplified by Zander’s own example, wherein he encourages the musicians in his orchestra to provide suggestions on how the music should be played. Those who are closest to the situation are in the best position to understand the problems and the changes that need to be made to affect the best outcome.

This does not mean taking every suggestion and implementing it, or even promising to implement it. It does mean that you have to develop facility for handling suggestions in a way that ensures they get fair treatment. Sometimes this means allowing a teacher to take leadership on an initiative that they have championed, and sometimes this means referring the idea to a relevant committee that is in position to make the suggested change.

Sharing responsibility:

To be most effective, a manager must not only listen to suggestions, but must create structures to implement important ideas and changes in a regular manner. At Gamble Montessori, there are few aspects of the structure and daily running of the school that have happened without the tacit approval, and sometimes the explicit approval, of a majority of the staff. This can be accomplished anywhere with a couple simple steps.

First, create committees to achieve certain goals or accomplish work that needs to be done during the school year. Though not an exhaustive list, three examples of this at Gamble, and at many schools, are:

  • Graduation committee, created to plan and implement the annual commencement ceremony;
  • Positive school culture committee, responsible for overseeing instruction around fair implementation of the school’s rules and policies for students, and the effectiveness of a particular approach;
  • Communications committee, responsible for maintaining the school’s website and social media presence.

Second, create a governing structure where the principal is a critical component, but not the only one. An example of this is an instructional leadership team (ILT). In Cincinnati Public Schools an ILT has a defined composition and roles that require a certain percentage of teachers, parent membership, and the presence of the principal to create a quorum. Such a structure similar to an ILT at any school could be used to make a wide variety of decisions. The wider the changes they are empowered to make within boundaries, the better. These should not be minor decisions; this committee is not best used to decide when the school play should happen (that is a job for a sub-committee). The ILT should be used to make substantial decisions such as setting the focus of annual improvement efforts, and monitoring the success of teams and individuals in achieving the goals that were decided upon.

However, the simple creation of a governing structure is not the goal. A leader must commit to giving those structures the space they need to do their work effectively. That means allowing the committee to structure the work that comes out of it – including the Principal’s work. I occasionally lament that our ILT exists to create my to-do list, but it is an empty complaint. I understand that to lead by example, I have to be willing to allow the decisions of the group to become my work. I must also enforce decisions when they become the work of the group.

Establishing priorities:

One replicable way that we have become transparently teacher-led is in collectively establishing priorities for key decisions. There are many “hidden decisions” that get made in the daily process of running a school, or any business. Every phone call handled by a secretary or returned by a teacher helps set a tone for the school (ask Zappos or Wondermade Marshmallows about the importance of good customer service.) Grading decisions made daily by individual teachers have large impacts on student success and outward signs of student success like grade point averages, which in turn affect college acceptances. Even though these decisions are powerful for individuals and their sense of connection to the school, they are made away from the public eye, in the privacy of our classrooms or dining rooms. These are the kinds of actions for which there must be a framework that establishes priorities. Not everything on a teacher’s to-do list can be the most important thing.

Another example of hidden decision-making comes when we schedule students. With only 7 classes in a school day, over two semesters, a course choice in high school has ripple effects for everything that happens afterward. I became aware of this early on, when the school was small enough that I did the scheduling by hand each July. Where a class fell in the school day impacted the ability of the student to take (or not take) other elective classes, or determined whether a team could have common planning time during the day. Several years ago I listed the factors that drove course selection and decision-making during scheduling, and I challenged our ILT to prioritize these factors. Earlier this year we revisited the process.

We used our leadership structure to involve everyone in determining our scheduling priorities by defining key terms, and taking an initial list back to our constituencies. We came back together with questions and suggestions for all of the scheduling factors. An example of the items that might run up against each other during scheduling, are “expanded elective choices,” “reduce class sizes,” and “access to remediation.” We then decided on a voting structure, created ballots, and voted as a staff, creating a final prioritized list. This list will guide those of us who schedule students as we make decisions, allowing us to do it independently and in a way that is consistent with the wishes of the school.

This process is time-consuming. It took us a couple of weeks. However, the result is well worth it. Ultimately everyone got to weigh in on our school’s scheduling priorities, and collectively we made a decision that will guide many behind-the-scenes decisions made by administrative staff while scheduling individual students and classes.

When you become a leader, you are going to get suggestions. Creating a shared responsibility system for handling suggestions is going to help everyone feel empowered and supported in making everyday decisions, and it will determine whether you are successful.

Make the Most of Spring Break

-by Jack M. Jose

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Spring break is right around the corner, and parents are looking to find the balance between structuring every moment, and losing the entire week to sleeping in and video games. Because it is just a week, there is no worry about losing skills like with “summer slide”, so spring break should be a time for extra rest, reading for pleasure, and practicing skills. Here is a guide to a great week.

If your children are going to be home alone for much of the week, help them set up a schedule for each day, with check boxes for each item (here’s a Google search to useful article and checklists.) Be sure to leave them instructions for calling for help if something goes wrong, and when they should or should not call you at work. Each day should contain one or more of the following:

  • chores that can be accomplished independently, like those described here, with lists by age;
  • instructions for a meal to be prepared independently, based on the skills and responsibility of your child;
  • scheduled “screen” time – video game / t.v. / Youtube, etc. – with a time limit;
  • reading time – with a Saturday trip to the library in preparation*;
  • time to practice a hobby – writing, playing an instrument, knitting/sewing, drawing. These should be done with a plan to accomplish a larger work over the course of the week, like writing a short story, learning a new song, perfecting a certain shot or working on a particular throw.

If you are fortunate enough to be home with your family during the week, and/or can spend time together on the weekends, here is a plan of attack for a successful spring break.

Thursday night: plan your week.

  • Look at the weather forecast and pick at least one “indoor” day and one “outdoor” day
  • Ask your child/children what they would like to do and find a place for it in the schedule

Friday night: welcome to Spring Break! Plan a family / family + friends night to kick off spring break in style.

Indoor days: Here are some great ways to spend time together on a day when the weather is uncooperative.

  • Art museum, (In Cincinnati we are blessed with great affordable arts. The Cincinnati Art Museum has free admission every day, and $4 parking, or take the Metro, route #1);
  • History museum, (The Natural History Museum, Cincinnati History Museum and Children’s Museum are under the same roof);
  • Local Water Works often offer free tours and fascinating exposure to how we provide clean drinking water to a community;
  • Volunteer for a local charity, preparing meals, serving food, sorting clothing and more;
  • Factory tours;
  • Aquarium (discount tickets to the Newport Aquarium can be purchased at Kroger stores.)

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Outdoor days:

  • Unscheduled outdoor play in the yard, (this can be penciled in your calendar almost daily, but should not be the sole plan for spring break week);
  • Outdoor play at a neighborhood park or sports field further from home with supervision as appropriate;
  • Visit a seasonal fruit farm, and pick ingredients for a cooking project, (better for locales further south than Cincinnati);
  • Hike a local trail, or walk between a couple of local historical sites, (find lists at CincinnatiUSA.com or a local tourism board);
  • Visit a local college to introduce the idea of going to college and forming preferences. This can be incorporated into family travel plans as well.
  • Zoo, (Cincinnati Zoo discounted tickets can be purchased at Kroger stores).

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And at night:

  • Game nights are always a hit at my household. We can play a game for four, or invite family members or other friends for a great group experience. Choose your family favorites, or try one of ours:
  • Movie night is a great way to relax after a long day of activity. MovieMom can help pick developmentally appropriate movies while providing thought-provoking discussion questions.

A good mix of structured and unstructured time helps everyone feel rested and fulfilled over spring break. No promises about whether your child will be ready to return to school!

*while these examples are specific to Cincinnati, most towns and cities have similar offerings.

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Real-World Experiences: Solving Problems

-by Jack M. Jose

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

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

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

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

How was this a “real life” experience? First, students worked directly with the tools that recording artists use on the computer and at the studio, and used the language of professionals. Second, except for some requirements to explore the functions in GarageBand, I outlined few restrictions on their final product; the final songs were as varied as the individual students. Third, they problem-solved with each other, co-creating, sharing music, teaching each other how to layer and clip sounds, edit and create loops, and more. “Real life” is just that – organic learning and sharing in an environment built to foster a specific activity, often resulting in a larger final product. Each student received a copy of a CD with all of the completed songs, and a cover collage of the artwork they produced to accompany their song.

Ten full days, fifteen students and four locations presented the typical obstacles that arise in planning any experience. Ultimately, we are only limited by our imagination, planning, and effort to make the best possible field experience for students. Well, and the obstacles, of course, some of which are legitimately insurmountable. In that case, we are only limited by our capacity to respond to the situation with optimism, and our willingness to realize that the old plan was a bad idea anyway, and our new idea is much better. Put simply: move on and accept it.

We encountered many obstacles that were particular to our songwriting intersession. Carey’s song disappeared from his computer, despite the automatic backup feature. He had to start over (luckily it was early in the intersession!) One song developed a randomly occurring static sound that Le’a and I were unable to eliminate (we decided it fit the theme of her song: you have to cherish each moment because unexpected events happen.)

Jynn, blessed with a beautiful voice, found herself overcome with nerves and unable to sing in front of her peers (so we arranged for her to record vocals in a separate room, and she recorded a song I still sometimes pull out to hear again.)

One day we were entirely on each others’ nerves and we took a break at a park. An “inside” joke that developed there emerged in one of our “skits” – short unscripted moments at the studio that we included in the album.

In the computer lab, students created their own songs. At the studio, they attended to the serious business of experimenting with the instruments, and interacting with each through the headphones. From the chaos and inexperience, students, only one of whom walked in with any recording experience, created an album of original songs and skits that exceeded the expectations. They were recording artists!

After I had copied the CDs, I gave them to my intersession students as they entered my class. Delron did a double take when I handed him the album. “Wait, I did this? This is me?”

That is the moment we are seeking – genuine pride in a new accomplishment.

Teachers at Gamble Montessori and elsewhere have found many ways to solve the problems that are part and parcel with creating a valuable experience. This attachment lists common obstacles and proposed solutions: Problem-Solving Field Experiences

We know this is not an exhaustive list of problems or suggestions, and we encourage you to list a problem and/or solution not listed above!