Spend 10 minutes at the copy machine or the water cooler in your workplace, and observe the number of negative comments you hear. Somehow it has become far more acceptable to share our problems, challenges, and frustrations, than it is to share our successes, joys, and delights. We live in a culture of pessimism where a sense of belonging is generated through shared complaint.
Neuroscience has shown us that the human brain is predisposed to seek out the negative, but we have the power to retrain our brain. Shawn Achor calls this “The Tetris Effect” in his book The Happiness Advantage.
We know that repeated activity strengthens the synapses in the brain, and that this is what causes learning to occur. When we reinforce the predisposition of our brain to focus on problems through regular retelling of the negative occurrences in our lives, we are essentially teaching our brains to function pessimistically. The bad news is that it is easy to do this; the good news is, that with conscious effort, we can make a different choice.
We can intentionally focus on the positive — the things that are going well and that bring us joy. We can certainly choose to do this individually, but, at Gamble, this is done on an institutional level.
Each year, the parting gift to staff members on the last day of school is a copy of that year’s Gamble Moments book – a compilation of positive moments provided by our staff. This is far more than a token present. The real power lies not in the book itself, but in the practice of seeking out, and paying attention to, the many truly beautiful moments that occur in each day.
It is so easy to overlook these moments – to allow them to live only in the shadow of the things that have failed to meet our expectations. Knowing that our staff is going to be asked to retell a Gamble Moment worthy of publishing, causes each of us to look for them. It is the very act of looking for them that begins to retrain our brains toward optimism.
Instead of a culture of belonging focused on negativity, we are coming together in search of the positive. There is little that is more powerful than that, and the moments we might have missed were we not actively seeking them out, are profound.
“During 10th grade fall intersession, MH demonstrated the honor and patriotism that reminded me of our brave men and women of the armed services. During a heavy rain storm, while all the students ran for cover, including myself, Malik ran back to walk with another student. This student could not run very fast; he felt alone and rejected by his peers and teacher. MH turned around and said, “Come on, I’ll walk with you.” So MH went back and walked with him at his own pace in the pouring rain, until they arrived at the shelter. Later, when I questioned MH about going back to walk with this student, his reply was, “This is a Montessori school. We leave no one behind.”
“One of my students came to Gamble from a rough, under-performing school. Ridicule and shame seemed to be his norm. While all the other students were having a great time celebrating being back from camp, this student was sitting alone, crying uncontrollably. No one could understand why he was so sad, but then, to my surprise, he said he was not sad, but happy. I was thoroughly confused until he elaborated and said, “No one has ever said such nice things about me.” Tears welled up in my eyes, knowing how miserable he must have been at his old school, and how proud I was to have been able to witness his transformation.”
The stories like these go on and on. Stories that might have been entirely missed if we hadn’t created a culture where sharing them is expected. This shift in perspective has profound benefits and is remarkably easy to replicate. You can find the template for our process here.
Gamble Montessori, as a new school, established a varsity football program relatively recently. Then we came in second in our first 3 football games. But this hot Saturday in early September, we had a good feeling. We had 24 young men on the team, which meant that though many of our best players would spend the balmy afternoon playing offense AND defense, we would have the chance to do some substituting. Having this few students always put us at a disadvantage against our opponents from bigger schools, but today we were playing a rival from a nearby program, a K-12 school from CPS: Oyler High School. They had just about the same number of players, which meant they would be as tired as us in the 4th quarter. So instead of watching a 4th quarter lead evaporate, as it had in 2 of our first 3 losses, there was a chance that we could build a lead and then win a war of attrition under the hot autumn sun.
Our Gamble Gators team did not have a lot of amenities. The coaches and players themselves carried much of the equipment onto the field, much of which had been borrowed or donated to the program: a parent-purchased kicking tee, two water coolers borrowed from the school’s camping supplies, and 6 Gatorade squirt bottles donated by a vending company rounded out our sideline possessions. At least today we were wearing matching uniforms in the school colors of green, purple, and black. This was a step up from the pre-season, when the local newspaper ran pictures from summer practice with our players in borrowed uniforms of brown and white, the word “BEARS” emblazoned across the front of each pictured jersey. A couple of fathers who had volunteered to help with the team, perhaps discouraged by our slow start, had other plans develop for this Saturday afternoon, and I soon realized that we had no waterboy on the sideline. So I volunteered for the job.
It is a unique and humorous experience – observing the look on a player’s face when he realizes the waterboy who just arrived in the huddle is his principal.
In addition to having the authority to direct the young men to take a drink they might otherwise refuse, being waterboy meant I was present on the field in a unique way. I had access I did not usually get – even as the principal of the school – access that is unique to the sport. Only the coaches and players themselves were closer to the action. This was how I got to see Jordan Sheffeld up close. Jordan was an exceptional athlete. A strong lineman with unusual agility, he could keep his balance well when blocking and tackling. On most teams, the quarterback was the onfield leader, but our young program had a freshman in that position, and so Jordan, who played offense and defense on most downs, was a team captain. He was the one who calmed down players in the huddle, and he could adjust the players based on the call that came in from the sidelines. This was part, but not all, of how he won the game for us that day.
Long story short, the game went just as described above. We got out to an early lead. A strong defensive stand in the middle of the final quarter meant we could run out the clock and seal our first ever program win.
I spoke to him Monday after the game. “Jordan, you were remarkable.”
“Thanks, Mr. Jose.”
“But do you know what you did?”
“Well, we won. So, I guess that was what I was thinking you were talking about.” He gave me a quizzical look and paused digging in his locker. “What are YOU talking about?”
“Well, you know that guy who lined up across from you?” He said he did, and supplied his uniform number and, to my surprise, his name. He explained that they had played basketball and football together growing up. I continued, “Well, you dominated him.”
“Yes, I suppose I did,” he grinned at being recognized. In fact, on several plays he recorded what is called in football a “pancake.” It is a descriptive phrase for how the guy you blocked looked after the block: flat on his back, like a pancake.
“But it wasn’t just knocking him down. It was that after each play, you picked him back up. And then, on the next snap, you knocked him down. One time when I ran out there, I swear you told him, ‘It’s okay, you’ll get me next time.’”
“Um, yeah, I remember telling him that.” He smiled at the subtle taunt. “I told him some other stuff too.”
“But then you picked him up again. You know what you did?” I waited till he looked me in the eye. “He didn’t put up much of a fight in the 4th quarter, did he? It’s because you broke his spirit. With good sportsmanship, and a dominant physical performance, you defeated his desire to beat you.
“I would say that you provided about the most Montessori performance one could ask for – you did your job perfectly, for the whole game, and you picked up your opponent after each play, then went out to beat him again.”
Montessori education is occasionally parodied as the refuge of pampered upper middle class children who clamor for participation medals after lacing their shoes. These imagined Montessori children become weak-kneed in the face of competition, and they blanch at the prospect of hard work.
In fact, the Montessori athlete is much like any other. Reveling in a sense of personal growth and self-development, Montessori athletes understand that practice is an important part of successful performance, and they embrace challenges in team and individual situations. They are not magical thinkers who only find satisfaction in winning, and thus seek out ways to be seen as winning without effort. Instead, they are hard workers who understand that competition with others is an important part of the athletic equation. In fact, it is often through competition with others that some of us can discover the inner drive to be our best selves. They seek out tests of their strength and speed and acumen. They challenge the clock, and set personal goals for weight lifted or the accuracy of a throw, or the excellence of an intended outcome.
The untested or unchallenged student athlete might believe wrongly that she is the best at an activity merely because she feels an intense sense of freedom within the activity itself. The Montessori child has moved beyond defining her performance solely on the basis of how it feels in the moment or solely on the basis of whether the work produces a victory. I think we all, at some point as children, believed we were the fastest runners in the world. Our children call us over, breathless, to watch them run across the yard at what seems to us to be an entirely ordinary child’s speed, then they insist to us that they are practically flying, and look to us for confirmation. What can we say? “Yes, indeed, that WAS very fast!” And our parents relate that we, too, repeated this ritual in our youth. So only when our children line up next to our neighbors’ children and see that one or two of them are far faster, do they begin to understand that running fast is a gift and a blessing, but running faster requires preparation and skill.
Most sports confer this concept adequately, but some sports do it better than others. For instance, runners in cross country and track, while they run against each other and there is a winner in the sport, are also always running against their own best times and the conditions of the track. Additionally, a runner can compete against published record times and a personal best time; in a sense, any runner can “compete” against the very best runners in their city, county, state, or the world, by reviewing posted times. In these sports, as students enter any competition with any number of opponents, there are two goals ever in mind, both require individual improvement: beat the fastest person, achieve my fastest personal time.
Some team sports develop this duality better than others.
Football exemplifies a team sport with many factors that complicate individual improvement. In this most recent season, 2016, our football team found itself on both sides of lopsided games. We won an important rivalry by 35 points early in the season. Five weeks later we lost by nearly 40 points. Had we gotten weaker? Slower? Less skilled? Had we truly regressed the comparative equivalent of 80 points? While the competition on the field offered each player the chance to practice his skills and improve himself in each game, the physical size and number of players on one football team can serve to mask the personal growth or regression. The tremendous advantage of size is compounded over the course of four quarters, in some cases making it less about personal improvement and more about personal safety. In each lopsided game, the smaller team found itself physically outmatched, and unable to improve in their skills. A taller basketball team starts with an advantage that is not unsurmountable, but which noticeably impacts the game at each end of the court on every possession.
It is important to note that the fields and courts used by our athletics teams are not the place where MOST of our students experience athletics at school. We require EVERY student to take physical education. In these physical education classes, our goal should be to encourage every child to understand what it means to be fit, and to seek out ways to, among other things, recognize “the value of physical activity for health, enjoyment, challenge, self-expression and/or social interaction.” Part of this is teaching students the rules and spirit of different sports. And, of course, that should be done in a way that promotes health, safety, and a sense of community. One uncontroversial adjustment made at most (if not all) schools is teaching flag football or “touch” football (where one or two hands on an opponent with the ball ends the play). Of course we make adjustments to make that sport safer. In other sports we make minor variations to increase participation as well, such as creating balanced teams and modifying rules to increase enjoyment among students who are less athletic. (Unfortunately, these sometimes are categorized as “girls’ rules” in some places, which sends distressing messages to our most athletic girls and our least athletic boys.)
We SHOULD make adjustments to these sports to make them more inclusive in physical education class. We should support and encourage our students to think about how to make the adjustments to create more inclusive but still cooperative games that they play on the playground and in the neighborhood. Cooperative game guru Karl Rohnke, author of Silver Bullets, a collection of cooperative games, provides a rationale for adjusting games on the fly: what is the point of a game if it is only fun for a few? Another pair of games enthusiasts, Adam Fletcher and Kari Kunst, introduce their article with a quote that suggests the existence of two kinds of games, the finite one, with fixed rules and a winner and loser, and the infinite one, which features changing rules and an intent to never end.
Now, about dodgeball.
When I directed my physical education teacher to stop playing dodgeball in class, some of my students were vocally upset. Others were supportive. I was confident that I had taken an important stand for what is good about athletics, and what can be bad about it. My decision was not based on stories of injuries and lawsuits. I was aware of some of them, like the Bronx school where an ill-advised indoor recess dodgeball game resulted in painful and expensive broken orthodontia from a soccer ball that struck a student who had opted out of the game. I had heard myriad stories about broken bones and bloody noses, but at the time I was not aware of state-wide bans in summer camps in New Hampshire and New York. My decision was not even, or at least not entirely, driven by the regular appearance of students in my office who had been wounded physically during dodgeball, or who had been wounded emotionally by the prospect of having things thrown at them by more athletic and more aggressive students.
No, it was primarily that dodgeball differs significantly from traditional team sports. Unlike basketball or soccer, there is little opportunity for actual strategy or running designed plays. Unlike individual sports, there is no measure for judging whether you have improved or even mastered a skill. In short, there seemed no argument for it. There were better ways to practice throwing for accuracy, and running, and even dodging. Kick ball for instance offered a chance to do these things, with the opportunity for respite at the next base, or the chance to score a run and assist the team. Meanwhile, in dodge ball, instead of providing ongoing support and contributing to the group’s success, your team is slowly whittled away. The acceptable athletics strategy of attacking another team’s weakness means, in dodgeball, that the least athletic student starts the game being targeted by one or more of the best athletes on the other side of the line, each throwing balls in his or her direction. This player then spends the bulk of the game, perhaps dazed by being struck with a ball to the head or face, sitting on the sidelines, ostensibly rooting for their team.
It is widely accepted that there are good and bad kinds of competition. I believe that dodgeball is inherently structured to emphasize the potential negative aspects of competitive games. It defies modification. Even as a fifth grader, I recognized the irony in the rule added by my PE teacher, who announced that if you got hit in the face you were not out. He meant to encourage us to throw balls at our classmates’ bodies, but the practical application was that moments after you got hit in the face, your teacher announced that you were still a viable target, and a dazed and embarrassed target at that.
In immediate response to the ban, students posted a petition in the hallway outside the gym. Thoughtfully, they included a few caveats for how they would conduct themselves when they played the game in the future. For instance, they suggested that students who were uncomfortable could just opt out. I spoke with the petitioners. I remember vividly our discussion, which focused on this “opt out” clause. Students could choose not to play without penalty. During the conversation, it was acknowledged by several people that it did not make sense to play a game where, by the act of playing it, several students would feel targeted and would instead choose to sit on the sidelines. That concept certainly violated our core value of community, for what is the value of a game if not everyone can enjoy it? If at the outset of the game, we knew that some students would be permitted to not participate? The very act of choosing to play dodgeball would then become exclusionary. One of the students who had signed the petition had privately expressed a concern about the nature of the game to me. I realized that in the conversation, I had to be careful not to expose that she had, in a sense, taken both sides of the argument. She never revealed to her friends her opposition, but, speaking as a signatory of the petition, she provided valuable arguments against dodgeball. She said to the group that the argument about including everyone was a valid point she had not considered.
After a few weeks, the petition was taken down.
Recently, I was approached by a coach who wanted to run a dodgeball tournament as a fundraiser for our program. He approached me as if he had been sent on a fool’s errand. “I heard you’re probably going to say ‘no’ to this request, but I was wondering if we could have a dodgeball tournament?”
“People sign up? Their own choice?”
“Yeah, they pay to enter,” he explained. “We have a small prize for the winner.”
I thought for a second. I considered how this request was different than in physical education class. A group of individuals will self-select to enter this tournament as a group, understanding the rules. Each would opt in because of the cause, or an interest in the game and playing with friends. They will have chosen to take the risk, and would not see it as anything other than fun if they themselves got hit and eliminated from gameplay.
“Sure. Sounds like fun.” My reservation was not about dodgeball the activity, but was instead about requiring children in physical education class to play a game that held so much potential for bad outcomes.
So, how can we work to make sure all of our students get to participate in our physical education games, and the games we play on field experiences or as community-building activities?
Ask yourself these questions, in this order:
Does this include everyone?
Is everyone getting an opportunity to contribute meaningfully to the team / group?
Does it promote physical activity and teach specific skills? Are the roles defined?
Is it fun? (Variations of this question: when someone is “out”, is it fair and clear?
How can I change it so the answers above are all “yes”? (OR At what point in the game can I ask students to change it so the answers above are all “yes”?)
When we teach students to compete in this way, instead of watering down their skills or teaching them that competition is without value, we call out their highest instincts for achievement.
One Monday night last school year, the Gamble varsity volleyball team beat Riverview East in The Swamp (as we call our home field. We are, after all, Gators). The final point of the 3-game sweep was a smash by Carrie that brought the raucous crowd to their feet. It was exciting! However, the best moment of the match for me came 7 points earlier.
On that point, a Gamble player struck the ball, and it landed on the opponent’s line for a point, according to all who saw it. The volunteer line judge, a Gamble student, flapped his flag indecisively. Riverview questioned the call and one referee went over to question the linesman, who indicated that he had moved the flag because he was unsure what to do when the ball hit the line. The referee called out “Gamble point.” However, our girls were already shouting to the head referee, “We will play the point over.” Just like that, they gave away a point. And 7 points later, they won anyway.
Having a faith in playing the game the right way, and responding appropriately to confusion over a call, demonstrates the kind of character we are attempting to instill in each of our students. Applying it during a crucial game against our oldest rival takes respect for self and respect for the game. And it does not cheapen our performance or weaken our skills.
 National Standards for K-12 Physical Education Copyright 2013, SHAPE America –Society of Health and Physical Educators, 1900 Association Drive, Reston, VA 20191, www.shapeamerica.org.
In the 2015-16 school year, Gamble Montessori earned a chance to participate in a groundbreaking new theatre program through a competitive application process. The Educational Theatre Association (EdTA), a large national actors’ guild, had initiated a program called JumpStart. Designed to help schools develop drama and theater programs, JumpStart targets schools that have no drama program. They provide training for teachers, access to modified musical scores which are tagged with the label “Jr.” (e.g. Once on This Island, Jr., or Annie, Jr.), and a structure for staging your own middle school musical in the spring.
In order to be selected for JumpStart, the school must first verify their dedication and determination to establishing an ongoing drama program. This is determined through interviews, where our responses to a series of questions were investigated to make sure we had the resources and initiative to accomplish the work. Once a school was selected – Gamble was one of three in this inaugural round – JumpStart provided support throughout the process.
Following the successful staging of Once On This Island, Jr. at Gamble Montessori in the spring of 2016, I was asked to speak at a fundraising breakfast to a group of EdTA donors. Other speakers from EdTA spoke about how the program came about, and between each set of speakers a professionally produced video was shown. Each video featured snippets (like this one) from the training or the performances, and interviews with those involved, myself included. Below are my remarks, edited for clarity.
You probably know me from having seen me on this wall in that last video. I’ll be available for autographs afterward.
When they called and asked me, “Would you like to speak to a group of potential donors about …” I said, “Yes.”
I am a huge proponent of the Educational Theatre Association’s JumpStart Program. I asked, “What would you like me to talk about? Would you like me to talk about my staff and how amazing it was that three teachers, a paraprofessional and a volunteer from the community got together and gave all this time to help these students? And how they split between them a very, very modest stipend?” And they said, “No, no.”
So I’m not here to talk about that.
I said, “You know, I can talk about how the program has grown. How the first year we only had 10 or 11 auditions and this year we had 30; and how the number of parents quadrupled from the first meeting to this year’s meeting and what enthusiasm has been generated in the school.”
They said, “No don’t say anything about that, we will take care of that piece.”
So I scratched that.
And I offered, “You know, I could talk about those moments in the performance where I cried. One was the moment where the students, a dozen of them, were on the stage. And they did this dance number, and they were all doing their own thing, and it was very clear that they were all hitting their marks and they were looking at each other. You could see this confidence and trust that only comes from working together as a team and a group. Or I could talk about the moment where they said, in a very mature way, about how this female character was ‘healing’ this male character,” (with both hands I did air quotes around the word ‘healing’.) “And how middle school students pulled off a very mature joke and it was funny. And because it was funny in just the right way, I cried.”
And they said, “No, don’t tell that story. We have videos.”
So I’m not here to talk about any of those things.
I want to talk about the students.
I can just tell you, first of all, I think you already heard evidence of what I am about to tell you in the comments from the speakers before me, and in the video with student interviews that we watched together. Obviously the students were affected by the experience. And these students were a cross section of our school. At Gamble, about 75% of our students are eligible for free or reduced price lunch. That means that many of our students live in poverty, essentially. We provide every student a free breakfast and a free lunch at school every day. Many of them need that. Many of them don’t. For a few of our students that’s the only meal that they eat.
That description is not true for all of our students at Gamble Montessori; as a school we have some students who come from traditional two-parent working professional households along with some who have experienced profound poverty. And students from all of those situations participated in our theatre program, but I want to talk to you about one student. I want to talk to you about Ty’Esha Whitfield. I want to tell her story, but first I’ll let you know that I spoke to her and got her permission to tell this story. And I spoke to her mother and got her mother’s permission to tell this story. I would never share this kind of privileged information about a student without that level of permission because, well, it’s a powerful story. And it is personal. And it might make some people uncomfortable. I will say that it should make some people uncomfortable.
Ty’Esha at the start of the year was a quiet, heavy set young lady who came to our school and didn’t have a lot of friends. She came from an elementary school where not a lot of her peers came to Gamble. Gamble Montessori is a magnet school. We draw students from every neighborhood in the district, so it is possible that a student can arrive here in 7th grade without any of their 6th grade classmates. So no built-in friendships to start the year. And she was having trouble making new friends.
She is a conscientious child. About the third week of school she was outside and several students were playing on a tree branch and she pulled on it and the tree branch broke. I said to her, “We can’t do anything about this today, but I’m going to bring the tools tomorrow and we’re going to fix this. We’re going to have to cut the branch because we can’t leave the tree open to disease.” She looked crestfallen.
The next day I went down into the lunchroom looking for her and SHE tapped ME on the shoulder and she said, “Mr. Jose, what do we need to do to fix this tree? I’m ready.”
Ty’Esha is a conscientious young lady.
I didn’t know at the time, in the first weeks of school, that she had started meeting with our school psychologist, Patty Moore. Her community teachers had referred her because she was having such difficulty making friends with students at Gamble, and she was very socially awkward. She had reported symptoms of depression. Our psychologist learned that one of the things she did to calm herself down was sing to herself a favorite Disney song. Patty was struck by her voice and videotaped it for her and played it back, so Ty’Esha could hear her voice. Patty shared the video, with Ty’Esha’s permission, with her teachers and with me.
She had a beautiful voice. And we all encouraged her to try out for the musical. And she got the role of Erzulie, the goddess of love, in our productions of Once On This Island, Jr. She had a show stopping solo. She was so proud of herself, and justifiably so.
About this time I talked with the psychologist and, with Ty’Esha’s permission, she shared the information I am about to share with you.
It turned out that during the production, during the practice and rehearsal stage, Ty’Esha and her mother had experienced homelessness in a most profound and deep way. As soon as they were removed from their home, her mother had tried her sister and all her family members and extended friends. For 2 nights they had nowhere to stay at all, and they stayed in their own car.
To her great credit, when I shared with Ty’Esha that I knew this, she said to me, in the fast-paced rambling way of someone confessing a long-held secret: “Mr. Jose, don’t worry, it was only 2 nights, and we were okay. Then we were in a shelter, Mr. Jose, and now it’s better. We were only there a couple of weeks, and I was okay with the not sleeping so much, I was really worried about my Mom. But it’s okay now because after we got with our sister for a while, my Mom got a job. And she’s now renting an apartment just a couple of blocks from school, so I can walk home after I practice for whatever this year’s musical will be.”
How can you do anything but love and care for a student who relates the story of spending two nights in a car, but then expresses concern that her principal would worry about her upon learning this?
Ty’Esha is the kind of student that a program like this touches and changes. It didn’t just change her individually, like giving her a great experience – which it did – but it literally changed her life. It changed where her Mom chose to live so she could be part of this program. It’s helped her stay focused on school while her family got back on their feet. The impact of this program on our students is an inspiration to me and to the teachers and other volunteers who give so much of their time and energy to the program.
I’m telling you one story, but in reality I’m exposing hidden stories like this everywhere. And I can tell you that without this program, that it’s possible that Ty’Esha Whitfield would still be in a situation where she was without friends or struggling to make friends. Where she wasn’t confident in school, and she didn’t have a triumph on stage. In fact, this wasn’t just an accomplishment, wasn’t just a great night. It was a triumph for a young lady whose life had not given her much winning at all. It had not given her much hope.
So as you think about those envelopes in front of you today, I want you to think about Ty’Esha and I want you to think about the work that’s happening in each of these schools and come out to the school nearest you, be part of it. Think about how you can give, with not just with your money, but think about how you can give with your time and resources and come out and be with us, and come to our performances. I can tell you other students’ stories, but I promise you that on every stage there are more than one of these stories.
The arts, in addition to being popular among students and families, correlate to positive academic outcomes. For instance, there is a positive correlation between the number of arts classes taken in high school and student SAT scores. We also know that participating in band doubles the chance of performing well in senior level math classes, and that the effect is more pronounced among impoverished students. The JumpStart program itself is working in partnership with Dr. James Catterall of the Centers for Research on Creativity to look at the effect of the program on students’ critical thinking, problem-solving, and other developmental assets. Early research, reported verbally on the morning of the breakfast by Jim Palmerini of EdTA, shows growth in these areas among students who participated in the program compared with a control group at the three involved schools, Gamble, Finneytown, and Holmes.
The JumpStart program expanded this year, to include a total of six schools. These now include Dater High School and Aiken High School, both part of Cincinnati Public Schools. Also in the program are Finneytown Middle School, Felicity-Franklin Middle School, and Holmes Middle School. Starting your own drama program is not an easy process, but EdTA has provided ample support and is looking to continue to expand its program and increase middle school students’ access to drama programs. If you are interested in participating in the program, Ginny Butsch would be glad to hear from you. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or if you would like to support the JumpStart program financially, follow this link to contribute.
Gamble Montessori will be performing Annie Jr. March 17 and 18, 2017.
 Catterall, James S., Richard Chapleau, and John Iwanaga (2002), “Involvement in the Arts and Human Development: Extending an Analysis of General Associations and Introducing the Special Cases of Intensive Involvement in Music and Theatre Arts.” In R. Deasy (Ed.), Critical Links: Learning in the Arts and Student Achievement and Social Development, Washington, DC: AEP
Josh Vogt stepped into my office and handed me a calendar. “Umm, thank you,” I offered.
“October,” was his only instruction. I examined the annual Day by Day calendar published by the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless. As instructed, I turned to October, expecting to see a photograph of our students. Instead I saw a picture of a group of people I did not recognize, taken downtown near a local homeless shelter. “Bella.” I looked closer but did not see the student he named, and I looked up at him.
“Bella TOOK this picture. This is her picture, from the Mayerson experience this summer.”
The evident pride on his face was well-earned. Josh has worked diligently with students in our school to help them become aware of the social and economic factors that contribute to poverty in our community. For four years he has led a Peace and Justice intersession at Gamble Montessori which includes an overnight “shantytown” experience, where students construct a cardboard shelter and sleep in it overnight on our school grounds. He had, most recently, given up a summer week, 11 hours a day, to partner with our students, the Mayerson Foundation, and Cincinnatians experiencing homelessness. The goal was to humanize the problem, and help students understand the difficulties faced by the poorest of the poor. But what he wanted was this – not to have students merely become aware of the problem, but to have them be part of the effort to fix it. Bella was contributing meaningfully to the conversation.
For a generation, students in high schools have been doing community service in increasingly formal programs. Nearly every high school in the Cincinnati area has a community service requirement that centers around accumulating a certain number of service hours over a high school career. The Mayerson Foundation, which generates and implements “innovative approaches to important issues” in Cincinnati, has helped promote a culture of community service in more than 30 high schools and districts around the greater Cincinnati area, and is a leader in structuring programs designed to promote community service and related service learning. Nationwide, about a quarter of our population participates in meaningful community service annually, though there has been a slight decline since 2011.
Community service, can be broadly defined. In school, often it is a teacher who sets up an opportunity for individual students or an entire class to participate in an activity designed to help a person or organization. This can take many different forms. Gamble students have planted butterfly gardens and removed invasive plants, they have repaired fences to keep out predators and spent time with traumatized animals to prepare them to live with a new owner, and they have worked with toddlers and the elderly.
This passion for involving students in giving of their time and talents to others is beneficial. The community gains an energetic and impressionable army of workers, who often drag friends and family into the work. Students gain a sense of accomplishment and begin to see the scope of the work of adulthood, and the real problems faced not just in other countries but by those in their own backyard. It develops a sense of self-efficacy in the student, who can see themselves as a helper instead of someone who needs the help of others. It fosters grace and courtesy, as we teach lessons about the environment, the elderly, and people experiencing homelessness, and students become comfortable with manners in a variety of new circumstances.
Additionally, developing a habit of volunteering can actually lengthen one’s life, as older folks who volunteer regularly are shown to live longer than those who do not, when controlling for other factors. Finally, we know that adolescents crave meaningful work while resisting busy-work, and tangibly helping a person or an agency as part of a larger cause helps satisfy this urge to make a real impact in their own community.
So volunteering is good. How do we get students to buy in?
Until now, the answer has been: make them do it.
Gamble Montessori looked at other schools’ requirements and settled on an average number of hours from neighboring schools. High school students were asked to compete 50 hours of service a year, for a total of 200 hours required for graduation. Middle school students had a slightly reduced requirement of 30 hours each year.
From the beginning, student involvement in our community service requirement was uneven. Only a few of our students, born into families with strong community service ethics and the means to support this passion, met the requirement each year. Others struggled to make the required total, and sought flexibility in the rules of what we would call service. Teachers found themselves broadening the definition of service. Soon the student lists included raking leaves for grandparents, to dishwashing at home, and we even accepted spending time at home with siblings while parents were at work as community service. Other students failed to meet even this newly broadened standard, and we found ourselves in the position of asking if we were passionate enough about our commitment to service that we would prevent a student from graduating if the requirement was not met. We answered by quietly ignoring the requirement.
The odds seemed stacked against getting all of our students to meet this expectation.
The hours and evidence were hard to track at high school. We tried monitoring it through our advisory, but with infrequent meetings in a class where we typically did not keep grades, the tracking was uneven and unreliable. There was also the issue of keeping and verifying evidence. It was suggested that we centralize it and the task was assigned to one teacher assistant at the school. This seemed to be working until the paper records were entirely lost in a building move. Finally, with the help of a counselor – available through use of a temporary grant – we purchased a program for helping the students track their own hours online. After about a year of implementation, we had trained most of our students in the program, but found that the additional step of self-recording appeared to have diminished our community service participation.
Frustratingly, we also had to confront the reality that some of our students were among those who benefited from charitable giving in the Cincinnati area. More than 70% of Gamble Montessori students are living in poverty, as measured by their eligibility for free or reduced price lunch. Several of our students qualify for assistance under the McKinney-Vento act, designed for students who have experienced homelessness.
This showed up several years ago, when teacher Gloria Lane was working with students to identify a place where they wanted to do some service. One of our 8th graders reported to his teacher that he wanted to work at a particular church that was far from his home. When she asked why he would choose a site that would be hard to get to, she told me that he shared with the class, “They brought presents to my little brother last year. They were really nice.” We explored the irony, or perhaps it was something worse than mere irony, of asking students living in poverty to give their time and resources to helping others. While the spirit of giving was strong (it is my observation that often our poorest families are the quickest to give and the most generous), it felt unfair to make the same demand on our neediest families.
The final nail in the coffin came through the observation made off-hand by a staff member, perhaps Josh himself, at a meeting where the service requirement was being discussed. “It’s another step in the school to prison pipeline. We’re making them do community service hours to get out.”
Sure enough, the perception among some members of our society is that community service is assigned in response to committing misdemeanors. Service as a consequence is so pervasive in our society that local United Way agencies maintain a list of agencies that provide opportunities for people needing to complete court-ordered community service. So our requirement, instead of creating an internal desire to do service for others, was instead inadvertently associating school with crime and punishment in the minds of some of our students. This could reasonably be seen as a powerful motive for some of our students to resist the requirement.
Still, we knew that the act of service is important for students and the community, and we sought to find the right program to build this habit. We had been trying to provide technical solutions to a larger, cultural (or adaptive) problem. We needed a revolution.
Recently, through our partnership with Clare Blankemeyer of the Mayerson Foundation, Gamble teacher Josh Vogt took a revolutionary new approach to service at the school level and created a program he called “Gators Give Back.” While we still have some of the same tracking and participation issues – technical problems that we hope can be resolved – it is a brilliant answer to the larger, adaptive problem of addressing the desire to participate by creating a real relationship between the student and the work.
In Gators Give Back, the hours and hours of potentially disconnected service, possibly spent at dozens of agencies addressing a range of problems, or raking leaves and babysitting, are replaced by a single focus area chosen by the individual student.
The difference between the old program and Gators Give Back is stark, evident right from the first service activity through the finalization of their senior project. At each high school grade, the requirement is distinct from the old “counting 50 hours” expectation.
Ninth graders, instead of being asked to provide evidence of 50 hours of service, select one opportunity from a list provided by the Gators Give Back committee. They are encouraged to attend with a classmate. Then, responding to a prompt, they write a reflection on the experience, which they share with their classmates.
Tenth graders are asked to dig a little bit deeper. Again encouraged to do this in a group of two or three, they must attend the same agency two or three times, gaining an awareness of the social impact and importance of a particular topic. This time, instead of writing a personal reflection, students are asked to take on the role of advocate. In a letter to a public official, they are to explain what they have learned about their chosen agency and the need it meets, and then suggest ways the public official could assist in the area of need.
Our close partnership with the visionary Mayerson Foundation is an essential component of the 11th grade requirement, philanthropy. Our juniors take stewardship over $1,500 dollars provided by the Mayerson’s Magnified Giving program, created by local philanthropist Roger Grein. Over the course of the year, they investigate the work of the agencies they already know firsthand, reviewing grant proposals that are written directly to the students from competing agencies, and researching the needs of the agencies and the community. They invite the agencies to bring proposals to the group. Ultimately, using criteria they have devised, they award the $1,500 to a deserving agency in a triumphant end-of-the-year ceremony.
Noticeably absent from these first three years of the program are the reliance on counting hours, and the likelihood of students experiencing a range of different and uneven volunteering experiences. Instead, students in the Gators Give Back program find themselves serving and reflecting and learning about a particular area of concern, while thinking about multiple aspects of the service. Whereas a student in the former program might have spent hours folding clothes donated to a local shelter, a student today gets an experience with a trusted partner like Visionaries and Voices, then explains the problem to someone in a position to help, and steps into the role of the person in a position to help.
The Gators Give Back manual provides a list of possible agencies and areas of need, and provides templates and prompts for the writing, as well as key definitions for terms such as service learning and advocacy.
Students in our program gain a nuanced understanding of the relationship between societal needs, face to face assistance, and the agencies and systems that can either ameliorate or exacerbate the conditions that make the service necessary.
Senior year, the service project becomes more involved, intertwining with senior project in a segment aligned with the Youth for Justice curriculum. The work is far more involved, requiring several components, and deepening the student’s involvement in issues and solutions.
The senior must select a service topic that relates to their year-long project, often with a connection to their intended career or area of study in college. They must seek out a mentor who is knowledgeable in that area, who will guide them in learning about the topic and making suggestions for meaningful action. Then, importantly, students must begin to implement that solution. At this level, we initially had a minimum requirement of hours, as well as a minimum number of contacts with the mentor, but in practice we found that many of our students had so many contacts during the process that tracking them seemed artificial, and the requirement has fallen by the wayside.
Our seniors are responsible for tracking this progress, and for presenting the work as part of their senior project. This step helped address the accountability issue that existed when community service was a standalone hours-counting project. Enmeshed with their senior project, the work becomes more personal, and directly tied to graduation. Senior Project is a non-negotiable for graduation at Gamble.
I attended one successful project, a domestic violence awareness walk organized by Tariah Washington. Replete with catered food and special-order t-shirts bearing her slogan, the walk drew 50 people who marched and carried placards around our school neighborhood before eating and hearing the presentation Tariah prepared.
The Gators Give Back program is revolutionary because it tackles the kinds of problems that have been plaguing community service programs in high school since their inception. Students are not providing hours of disconnected service in multiple places. Instead they are building meaningful connections with issues of need in their own community. Now, hopefully, students find that service is inextricably linked to a required graduation component. They cannot hope to duck under the gaze of an individual tracking their hours, as the largest portion of the work is part of senior project. Now: impoverished students who may find themselves served by an agency can see a role for themselves beyond receiving or giving temporary help, instead working in the role of advocate and benefactor. This gives them practical skills that they can use in their own situation to make a sustainable change in their own family’s situation. Now: our program is not aligned with the mandatory, punitive community service programs in the justice system, counting hours until release.
Josh related to me a longer version of Bella’s story.
“Bella is one of those students whose life was literally changed by serving others. I’ll never forget that during the summer program, she was strongly advocating for eliminating spikes on concrete that some businesses put on the ground to discourage people experiencing homelessness from sleeping there. One of the StreetVibes vendors we were working with was actually sticking up for the businesses, but Bella did not back down. Another of the vendors raised his hand and said ‘No, man, I agree with her’ and the other vendors started clapping!”
Through service, advocacy, philanthropy, and mentored service learning, students in the Gators Give Back program transcend typical service. Instead they are empowered to act in an area that is meaningful for them.
As a school we have more come a long way, but there are still improvements we could make. This service paper could be incorporated as requirements in English and social studies classes. The letter they write in 10th grade meets a specific requirement for the ELA standards, and working on this in class for a grade would reinforce the requirement, improve the writing, and provide additional support for the student and the work in the school. Advocacy certainly meets high-level expectations in American History and Government classes.
This is how we are doing service at Gamble.
How can you promote service, advocacy, and philanthropy at your school? What have we missed?
Senior Project Night is a proud night at Gamble Montessori. The school becomes the very public arena where our seniors’ projects, started a full year earlier, are seen in their entirety for the first time. Nervous students, in their Sunday best clothing, circle their tables and wring their hands, making small talk with their parents and mentors as the time arrives and space fills with curious guests. Senior Project Night is easily summed up, but difficult to fully understand. It is not just an artifact of a student’s research, or a short speech, but the culmination of years of education. Students are really presenting themselves as fully prepared for the world beyond high school.
The recent full-length documentary film Most Likely to Succeed drew a lot of attention in the education world in early 2016 by shining a spotlight on a charter school with a unique structure. The movie portrayed High Tech High in San Diego as a nearly utopian vision of future-school, where students worked continuously throughout the year on a major culminating project.
The movie attracted a cult-like following among fans of Montessori schools. Groups of educators planned private screenings, wrote blogs, and posted rave reviews to Facebook that sometimes admittedly were posted before the authors even saw the movie. I was also caught up in the interest in the movie. I attended a screening at Xavier University in Cincinnati as part of their Montessori Lab School program in partnership with Cincinnati Public Schools.
The movie itself, however, was not really the main draw for educators like me. In fact, the film was prone to hyperbole and to overselling the possibility of this kind of future school sweeping the nation. At one point one of the protagonists speculates about the significance of the completion of his project by saying, “It will be the best day of my life.” As a member of the audience we felt his excitement and agony, true, but this felt a bit oversold. Perhaps what had happened was life changing for him, and would have been even without a documentarian filming his progress. The primary attraction for most of us was that Most Likely to Succeed, by drawing attention to project-based learning, had the opportunity to change even more lives by helping to explain the impact a year-long project can have on individual students.
The reality is, asking students to complete a year-long project is not the provenance of some utopian future school. Project-based learning is not a new fad set to sweep the nation. Many schools have been doing a version of this for years, Gamble Montessori and our sister school, Clark Montessori, included. The work for senior project begins at the end of the junior year and ends on this night in May, just days before graduation.
Mary, from the Gamble class of 2015, was a reserved student, who worked hard and was satisfied with the grades she received. She was well liked by her peers, but she was unlikely to speak up in a group larger than 2 or 3 of her close friends. When I first met her, she was transferring to Gamble Montessori from another local high school renowned for its academic rigor. Her initial reaction as I approached was to step behind her mother. She was not exactly shy, but rather, wary. Her academic and personal transformation while at Gamble was completely embodied in her senior project, which was an investigation of food production practices, food labeling laws, and the forces that drive our food consumption. She called it, simply, “The Ethics of Eating.”
When I asked her in August of 2016 to describe a bit of her senior project experience, Mary’s response was effusive, more than a page and a half of single-spaced written commentary in a Word document. It was clear that it made a huge impact on her, and she was excited to talk about it.
Senior Project starts in the spring of the junior year, with students doing interest inventories and investigating questions in areas that spark their passions. They travel to the Cincinnati Public Library Main Branch and learn the basics of researching from the expert research librarians. While there, they locate several sources of information and start the process of reading the research and taking careful notes over the summer. The senior team provides support days periodically during that summer so students who are struggling can get back on the right path. Students have chosen a mind-bending range of topics, from fuel-efficient cars, prostitution in Cincinnati, animal welfare laws, and the existence of angels. Students must reach out to local experts in the field and find someone willing to mentor them, or at least to provide guidance showing that the student’s work was contributing to the larger conversation in that field.
The mentors have included the following:
Music Therapist from Melodic Connections
Attorney at Ohio Innocence Project
Chemical Dependency Counselor
African Drum Teacher
Children’s Transgender Clinic Social Worker
FBI Agent in Gang Task Force
Epidemiologist and former Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa
Local Activists from Black Lives Matter and other organizations
When the school year starts, the seniors’ schedule provides an additional bell that abuts their English and social studies bells but which is used primarily for senior project work. Mary explains the intense workload this way:
I personally spent so many hours on reading parts of books, whole books, articles, magazines, and blog posts. I also watched documentary after documentary. I watched every single one that was on Netflix (and there were surprisingly a lot) and then I watched more. I loved my topic so it was easy to waste away a lot of hours digging deeper into the subject. It is impossible to calculate how many hours I studied by myself but it was a lot. The classroom provided 5 hours of work time each week and that was every week for most of the entire year … It took me about 15 hours to put my video together after I got all of the footage. The footage happened on several different days and was then later combined into the final video at the end of the school year. Talking to my mentor took up a lot of time too. Basically, this project is very time consuming but that was expected and I enjoyed every moment of it.
Everything we do at Gamble should be aligned around creating this love of learning in a student. We set out to make a school that was safe for students – not just physically safe, but safe for them emotionally and educationally. This statement from a student expresses a sentiment that can never be measured on a standardized test. This is our Super Bowl win. I hear in there the joy of learning. I hear her talking of hours spent happily exploring a fascinating idea. The Socratic method of asking questions and digging ever deeper for answers drew her in, engaged her curiosity, and created a deep passion for a topic. Within that, we taught her the skills to follow future ideas that capture her attention. This is what every parent hopes for their child to experience at school – a passion for learning.
How was senior project different from other work she had done in school?
I had to contact professionals and ask for help, I had to talk face to face with strangers, I learned how to take advice from constructive criticisms and not be offended, and I had to kindly and intellectually retaliate to people who were challenging my ideas. I think the most outstanding thing about senior project though, was that by the end I felt that it had made me a more confident, outgoing, and educated individual; and the best part was that I achieved all of that studying something I was passionate about.
Above are the words of scientific discourse, of intellectual engagement, the words of a person who is engaged in the pursuit of knowledge for the public good. To seek out ideas that challenge your current thinking is the heart of a strong and confident education. This is the “ready man” as described by Sir Francis Bacon and further explored by Samuel Johnson, who both assert that the “ready man” – the educated man ready to engage in leadership and intellectual discourse in his community – is made by conversation.
Challenges confront the students throughout the year. Occasionally a student will lose the passion for a topic, proclaiming it boring, or lose the thread of an argument. This often means they think they have run out of areas to research. Through a conference with his teachers, he will have to decide whether to revise the question, start over, or struggle through the roadblock. This is akin to a dead end in scientific inquiry, and the answer depends on the calendar and the individual. Is there time to start over? Is there any guarantee that the replacement question will prove more fruitful?
The senior team of teachers provides academic support in classes with a curriculum that overlaps some of the same ideas that students are exploring. Students writing about race find readings in psychology class that work as evidence for their research. (On the playground at lunch, older students will inevitably respond to statements about a person’s race with the quote, “Race is a social construct!”) Additionally, standard research format is taught and reinforced. One of our 2016 graduates, Syirra Roberts, reported to me that her freshman psychology teacher pulled her aside after three weeks of class and asked which high school Syirra had attended. Her test scores and classroom responses revealed a deep understanding of the topics being discussed, and her professor asked her to pass on his respect to her high school psychology teacher.
In thinking about Mary’s zeal for her topic when she delivered her speech, one could argue she put up a good show for her final grade. Was that passion real? My conversation with her occurred more than a year after graduation. Students often will tell the “whole truth” after a year away, feeling no need to dissemble in order to get a good grade or not hurt someone’s feelings. I think the answer is this: Embedded among Mary’s responses was this invitation extended to me: “If you haven’t ventured into answering the questions you have about where your food comes from (or if you don’t have questions but don’t consider yourself to be someone who knows much about the food industry) I highly encourage you to do so. It is something that is so important and there are so many things that people don’t know that they should.” The passion is real. A year later, Mary has become an advocate for others to learn more about the food process.
I learned how to take advice … and not be offended, and I had to kindly and intellectually retaliate to people who were challenging my ideas.
This could just be an extended research paper, except for Senior Project Night. Each spring, mid-May, the seniors do not merely turn in the work to a teacher to anticipate a grade. Instead, they present their work to the community. Spread throughout the gym, library, and some adjacent classrooms, each senior commandeers a table and displays his or her work. There are required elements: a visual presentation showing what they learned, a research paper, a persuasive component, a spoken summary of their work along with the ability to respond to questions about their topic, and a service requirement. Students often display some of the reference material they cited, especially books they bought. Students are required to produce something that demonstrates a deeper understanding of what they have learned. Sometimes it is a pamphlet providing important information about their topic, or it is information about a dog the student adopted and nursed back to health at a local shelter or in their own home.
The seniors’ parents are present, as are their mentors. Nearly the entire faculty drops by, as do parents from past years, and parents of younger students who are curious about the event. Dozens of students, especially juniors, make a point of attending. These guests are invited to not only sign in at each table, but also to offer feedback; this feedback then helps form a portion of the student’s final assessment.
This brings us back to that night. Students in their formal clothes, young men pulling at their collars and adjusting their ties, young ladies in dresses too formal for the typical school day. All nervously walking through the rooms, gathering the last of their materials, moving tables into place, calling a favorite aunt to give last-minute parking advice. And then it is show time.
Our seniors present their work in charts and graphs, pamphlets, tri-fold boards and every conceivable format. One year a student dressed in a yellow haz-mat suit, emerging sweaty but proud at the end of the evening. Students bring old tires and photographs. There is music and laughter, and quiet discussions as adults are confronted with the difficult topics tackled by their children. These questions have included the following:
Why is it that exotic dance/neo-burlesque, which is one of the top forms of entertainment in the world, is looked at as a degrading and/or a morally reprehensible profession for the women working in it?
When should transgender children transition socially and physically?
How does a mother’s age, mental state and lifestyle choices while pregnant affect how a baby develops in the first 6-8 weeks of life?
Is the death penalty an ethical punishment that reflects society’s views?
Why is it that people are unfairly treated based on the stigma of HIV/Aids?
Is ISIS really following Islamic Ideology?
Why do humans feel the need to be in a monogamous relationship?
Mary’s final presentation table included a crock pot of vegetarian chili (which was delicious and indistinguishable from traditional meat chili), a video of her presenting her findings, and a second video of “man on the street interviews” in downtown Cincinnati.
That’s right, the same girl who stepped behind her mother when it was time to meet her potential new principal, had gained the confidence to stop strangers on the street, ask them questions about the food they ate, and to provide on-the-spot answers while being videotaped. And here, on Senior Project Night, she confidently answered questions from every person who approached her table.
There is a moment during each Senior Project Night where I find myself drawn away from the tables and the students. I stand silent at a distance in each place our students are presenting; first in the gym, then in the library, and then in the large classroom. I allow myself to examine the whole scene in front of me as one picture. I take a long, deep breath. In this hive of activity, I hold each student momentarily in my gaze. I remember their arrival as timid 7th graders, or perhaps as anxious and wary high schoolers. I reflect on their struggles, and I note that, without exception, this night is a victory for each of them. Tonight they display the work that has been for them the hardest thing they ever imagined doing. Many admit to not believing they could do it at all. Here they are, each of them. Beautiful, proud, accomplished. I stop to see them as they are in this moment, resplendent and triumphant.
I often call moments like these “the teacher’s real payday,” and these are enough to fill the soul.
“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.”
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.
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:
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.
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.
Corey was returning to school after a three-day suspension. He had missed three days of instruction, was angry with his teachers for issuing the consequence, and was embarrassed by the problem that had occurred in front of his peers. Though this situation is far from a set-up for success, how he walks through the door of the classroom on that first day back will impact the rest of his school year. Too often, as teachers and administrators, we miss this critical moment for connection and problem-solving
In all school settings, student misbehavior – breaking the rules – is a daily occurrence. This runs the gamut from minor infractions such as dress code violations, chewing gum and off-task talking to more major incidents like disrespectful communication and verbal or physical conflict.
I am often asked, “Why do they [students] behave like that?!” My answer is always, “Because it’s their job.” Or as Jack phrases it, “because they are adolescenting.”
What we both mean by these comments is that they are working it out – who they are, how they fit, what they believe in . . . and they are discovering the boundaries of what is acceptable in a variety of situations and with a variety of people. This is their work, and in the process of this work, they must make mistakes, for that is how learning occurs. For some, this learning comes harder than it does for others; their mistakes are bigger.
School is both a relatively safe environment in which to make these mistakes, as well as a place so full of rules that it is easy to find ways to break them. There are few other environments that have so many restrictions on behavior – no talking while you are working, restroom breaks are limited and only allowable with permission, lateness of even just a few seconds comes with a consequence, food consumption is limited to specific times and locations, etc. Where do we ever see adult environments that mirror this level of rigid expectation? Prison? I don’t mean this as a critique of schools – it is difficult, if not impossible, to manage a large group of adolescents in the absence of an abundance of rules – however this also creates a near-perfect storm: individuals hell-bent on boundary-pushing in a setting with a tremendous amount of boundaries!
So our adolescents, in the process of growing up, break our rules – in small ways and in large ones, and as their guides, we are charged with addressing and correcting their misbehavior. This runs the gamut from simply redirecting behavior to suspending a child from school.
While suspension should always be a weighty decision – there are few educational messages as strong as “You can’t be in my classroom right now” – it can be a powerful tool that allows for a cooling-off period, a space in which a student can regroup and school staff can consider how to best address the situation.
But the removal from school is just the beginning of the process, and, by my measure, it is not the most important component of the school response. Rather, what takes place when the student returns to school is the most critical factor.
Put yourself in the shoes of a teenager and consider this scenario:
You have made a mistake – a pretty big one. You have missed several days of school – and therefore have missed out on both the academic instruction and the social dynamic that has taken place in your absence. It is likely that your peers have some awareness of the situation and why you haven’t been at school. Your teachers or administrators have been in touch with your parents, who are pretty upset with you. Additionally, you probably feel, rationally or irrationally, that you have been mistreated. You are embarrassed, angry, and anxious, and now you have to return to school and face your peers, teachers, and administrators once more.
This is not a good set-up in which to have a fresh start, and yet a fresh start is exactly what we are hoping our students will experience.
At Gamble, we have established a Re-Entry Conference procedure to help ease the transition back to the classroom after a removal from school. It is intentionally a formal, and formulaic, process in an attempt to simultaneously address the misbehavior and set the student up for future success. This is a tricky tightrope to walk. To assist us in doing that successfully and efficiently, we use a structured form to guide the process. That form is linked here, and the accompanying process is outlined below. Each section correlates, in order, to a numbered step on the form.
“To assist the student in smoothly returning to the school setting by reviewing the problem behavior, re-teaching expectations, and identifying any necessary supports”
This goal statement was a recent addition to the form. We included it at the top of the form because sometimes we get confused about what the goal of the conference is, and become overly caught up in discussing all the things the child had done wrong. This adds insult to injury and runs counter to the purpose of the conference. The reading of a goal statement is an important reminder that helps everyone to remain on track.
Strengths of the Student
This is perhaps the most important piece of the meeting. It is important for everyone in the room to remember what the student does well before moving on to the mistakes the student has made. The words that are shared in these moments establish a possibility to be lived into,and reinforce the inherent worth of the child.
This risk here, however, is in what I call the “Yeah, but . . . phenomenon.” The temptation to follow a compliment with a related criticism can be so strong. I recently had to quite literally bite my tongue when I realized that I was falling prey to this very thing. I was sitting in a re-entry conference with Lashawnda and her mother. Lashawnda had been removed from school for bullying. Her actions matched all 3 bullying criteria: continued over time, included a power imbalance, and demonstrated the intent to harm. This behavior was shocking coming from this particular student, and we sent the appropriately strong message that it would not be tolerated and that she couldn’t be part of our school community until she had a problem-solving conversation with her teachers and her parent.
As always, we began the meeting by describing her strengths. Her mother had tears running down her face as I described the powerful and positive leadership qualities that Lashawnda possesses. Midway through a sentence that sounded like, “Lashawnda has such tremendous gifts as a leader,” I realized that my next words were about to be, “which is why I am so very disappointed by the choices she has recently made.” I caught myself mere milliseconds before having these words tumble out of my mouth. I did need to address the behavior, but not yet, and not at the expense of undermining her strengths. The moment that I link her leadership strengths with the problem behavior, I inadvertently remove all the power from the positive feedback. I basically give her the message, “Well, not really,” and what she will remember is the criticism and not the compliment. This is true in teaching, in coaching, and in parenting. Reed Maltbie describes it thusly in his blog on coaching young people. (You can read more of his thoughts at www.coachreed.com)
Describing a student’s strengths may be the most important part of the meeting; don’t dilute it’s power by adding a “yeah, but . . . “
Once every person at the table has identified some of the student’s strengths, the meeting facilitator transitions to the second step of the process – describing why the student was removed from school.
NOW it’s time to talk about the problem behavior. Remember that this is a re-teach moment, not a “bring’em down” moment. Be careful of double jeopardy; the consequence has already been served.
Because Gamble is a team-based school, re-entry conferences tend to include many staff people – often an entire teaching team as well as an administrator. This is important to ensure a singular voice and clear and consistent communication, but it risks making the student feel teamed-up on. Resist the urge to pile on a lengthy list of infractions, or having multiple adults provide essentially the same negative message. Choose words carefully, focus on the impact of the misbehavior and on teaching how the situation could have been handled better.
Keep in mind that the student does not have to agree with you in order for your point to be heard. You are not obligated to convince the student that the behavior was a serious problem. It is, of course, ideal if the student is able to take responsibility for the situation and seek to make amends; however this does not always occur. Trying to force the issue is akin to trying to make a finicky toddler eat a disliked food. All you will wind up doing is engaging in an unwinnable control battle, and while it can be tempting to belabor your point until a student appears to agree with you, this is similar to obligating students to apologize. They will do it if they sense it is required, but that does not make it genuine or valuable.
Remember the goal of the conference is to help the child return to school – creating a deeper divide is counteractive to your purpose. Speak your truth. The student does not have to share in it for your words to be impactful. As with all forms of education, you are planting seeds. Even if those seeds don’t find immediate purchase, trust that they have been received and will, at the least, lay the groundwork for future growth.
Allow the parent(s) to share any concerns they might have. Be prepared that this might include a critique of how school staff handled the situation. Fight against the natural inclination to be defensive. You’ve had your turn. Offer clarification when warranted, but just as you and the student do not need to agree on an interpretation of the situation, neither do you and the parent.
It is also possible that the parent will share the same concerns as school staff. Here, too, it is important to not revisit school concerns and “gang up on” the student. Allow the parents’ concerns to stand separately.
This is the student’s turn to speak. Although it is where you hope to hear the student take responsibility for the misbehavior, this may or may not occur. Depending on the student’s response, the same potential pitfalls exist that arise during the parent concern part of the meeting. Often students do not choose to express any concerns. Encourage them to contribute – this is a potential moment of self-advocacy, and students’ comments may lead to the best problem-solving strategies, as there is no one at the table who has better insight into the situation than the student himself.
The next part of the meeting is spent looking at what each party can do differently to help the student to make better choices going forward.
The order remains the same: first school staff identifies available supports from which the student might benefit, and explores how to put them in place; then the parent identifies ways in which they can assist the student in making improvements, and lastly the student is asked to provide strategies she or he can use to prevent the same situation from occurring again.
Bringing it all together
The final element of the conference brings the conversation full-circle. The form states, “Summarize action plan and strengths of the student in a way that encourages the student to succeed moving forward.” It provides for a revisiting of the student’s strengths coupled with the identified action plan to allow for an optimistic vision of the student’s success in the future.
For Corey, this meeting was revealing. During the conversation, Corey’s mom noted that she needed to be more involved in her son’s schooling, Corey shared that he often felt targeted for his behaviors, and his teachers set up a process where Corey identified a trusted adult to whom he could turn to for assistance when he had behaved inappropriately.
At the end of this discussion, Corey, his mother, and school staff were all on the same page, and all parties were ready for him to return to the classroom in a positive manner.
Re-entry conferences are not a magic elixir, and, like most things, they take time and effort. Behavioral change is a lengthy process, especially for our neediest students. These re-entry conferences are a way to heal the rift that occurred with the misbehavior and the ensuing consequence, help the student transition successfully back into the classroom community, and provide an opportunity to reteach the correct behavior and the classroom expectations. It’s not an easy process, but it is powerful and worth the time and energy it entails.
Educational pedagogy can be as faddish as the fashion industry – what is de rigueur one year, can become passé just as quickly. We are all looking for the perfect teaching methodology that works for every student, every time.
Of course, such a utopian ideal doesn’t exist, and can’t ever exist, because education is about people, and people will never fit into a one-size-fits-all model because people are messy.
Differentiation is the latest practice to run the risk of having the proverbial baby thrown out with the bathwater.
Recently in Education Week, James Delisle boldly titled his article, “Differentiation Doesn’t Work.” He wrote, “Differentiation is a failure, a farce, and the ultimate educational joke.”
Whoops . . . the bathwater and the baby!
Delisle primarily critiques differentiation on two grounds: the difficulty for teachers (or as he notes, impossibility) of implementing differentiation practices, and a concern that heterogeneous student groupings (the structure on which differentiation is based) does a disservice to all students.
There is some merit to his first claim. Effective differentiation is hard, hard work. It is true that planning differentiated lessons and assignments is like preparing multiple lessons for each class, and I agree that it may be a near impossible task for a teacher operating alone. Co-teaching and teaming structures are an important way to make the task feasible.
Differentiation is made easier in a co-teaching model. Co-teachers are able to share the extra work that comes with differentiation, and differentiation practices maximize the benefits of co-teaching. Other forms of teaming can also lighten the differentiation burden through collaboration and the sharing of lessons and materials.
I find Delisle’s second claim more worrying as it touches on fairness and equity in education. The homogenous groupings he proposes are more commonly called “tracking.” In non-education parlance, this means grouping students of similar abilities together – often identified as “honors,” “grade-level,” and “remedial” tracks. This implies that the only measure of a student’s ability is an academic one, and that students benefit when they are surrounded by others most like them in terms of academic skill.
This is backward progress. Studies have established that students placed in lower-track programs do not perform as well as students in mixed-ability settings.Neuroscience has proven that the brain is malleable, that high expectations yield high outcomes, and that knowledge is developed through repeated practice and challenging content. In light of this, it is particularly concerning that lower-track classes are disproportionately composed of students of color and low-income students, while higher-tracked classes tend to be made up of predominately white or Asian, middle-class students. In this way, our educational system mirrors, and reinforces, the inequity seen in our society as a whole. As educators, we are fundamentally charged with helping to level the playing field for our students, not contributing to the uphill battle. If we know that tracked programming yields poor outcomes, and potentially serves to maintain the racially-linked economic disparity so prevalent in this country, we simply must not do it. First, do no harm.
But what about the accelerated students? The argument that differentiation disservices high-functioning students holds no water. When differentiation practices are fully implemented, they are used to expand the learning of these students in the same way that they support the learning of struggling students. Sometimes this means that homogenous groupings are used within a heterogeneous classroom to allow accelerated students to work together. Sometimes it means that extension work is assigned, or that the highest level of an assignment incorporates greater amounts of complexity, or that lesson content is compacted and taught separately to this group so they can move more quickly. There is no singular differentiation strategy, but the idea that it is only effective for low-level students is an erroneous one.
However, none of this gets to the real heart of the issue. Exposing our students on a daily basis to people who are different from themselves is perhaps the greatest society-changing influence we can have. Our biggest work is to guide our students into becoming noble citizens; we must provide them with constant opportunities to see all the gifts (not just the academic ones) that each individual possesses. When looking through the Gamble Moments books, it is remarkable how many of those powerful stories involve students interacting with others who have greater challenges. It is in these moments that we see the greatest growth in our students; not having these opportunities would be a tragic loss for all students – equally detrimental to our high-achieving students as to our struggling learners.
So if we reject tracking as an acceptable mode, and, after all, “separate but equal” was thrown out as an appropriate option in 1954 with Brown v. Board of Education, we are left with the conundrum of how to educate students with a disparate range of skills, abilities, and experiences within the same classroom. This is not something that is going to go away, and it is a reality in the vast majority of classrooms across the country. We must embrace differentiation as a strategy to meet the many needs of our students.
Differentiation is the means through which students with a broad-range of learning needs can benefit from a diverse classroom environment while simultaneously making academic gains. We have already established that it is not a panacea; however it is the best strategy teachers have for making instruction accessible to all.There are many ways to differentiate, and, like all instructional practices, it takes time to develop expertise. Speaking from my personal experience, developing differentiation techniques was my number one professional aspiration for years. After three years of actively pushing myself in this area, I finally felt like I had achieved the goals I had set for myself in my initial vision, but, of course, by then, my goals had changed and evolved — the more work I did, the more work I saw that I had yet to do! As Carol Ann Tomlinson writes in “Differentiation Does, In Fact, Work,” “The pursuit of expertise in teaching is a career-long endeavor. They [Teachers] aren’t sprinters expecting quick success, so much as marathoners in the race for the long haul.”
Getting started, or doing more, with differentiation can feel like a daunting task. It is important to keep in mind that differentiation is not a goal in and of itself, rather meeting students’ needs is the goal, and differentiation is the vehicle. So begin with planning.
There are many ways to differentiate – differentiated expectations, differentiated instruction, differentiated assignments, and differentiated assessments. Add to this the ideas of differentiating based on complexity of task (vertical differentiation), and differentiation based on method of demonstrating proficiency, often called choice work or menus (horizontal differentiation), and suddenly, every lesson can begin to look like a Meyers-Briggs personality-type chart! But don’t despair – most lessons don’t require differentiation of every type, and some lessons don’t need to be differentiated at all. It’s important to start with planning.
The Planning Pyramid is a good place to begin – thinking about what components of the standard all students must learn, most students must learn, and some students must learn.
From there, you can design instruction and assessments that will help your students achieve the expectations you have established for them. Assessments are designed based on the expectations for each group.
Many teachers will decide that this type of vertical differentiation is the most important way to implement differentiation simply because meeting the needs of struggling and accelerated learners is such a challenging task.
However, horizontal differentiation can be equally enriching to a classroom environment. We know that students perform best when they enjoy the task and when they are able to exert some autonomy over it. Choice work allows for creativity and self-selection in the classroom. There are many resources available to help teachers add these components to their classrooms.
There are as many ways to differentiate as there are classrooms. There is no single right way, and it may never be perfect, but in the absence of the elusive, perfect strategy, we must embrace differentiation as a technique that is right for students.
It is not something that we can implement all at once. Begin by taking the next step. Perhaps that means planning one lesson that includes differentiated assignments, or perhaps it means designing a long-range project which includes many of the components of differentiation.
Here are some examples of differentiation that I have incorporated into my own practice. They are each a work-in-progress, and each evolved through collaboration with my co-teachers.
In today’s classrooms, differentiation is not so much an instructional option, as it is an ethical responsibility. The vast majority of classrooms represent diverse communities of learners – this is a critical component to the growth and development of students as they become conscientious citizens of the world, and yet it creates unprecedented academic challenges.
So throw out the bathwater, but keep the baby. Differentiation is very hard work, and teachers need more help in order to be able to implement it more fully. We need more co-teaching pairs, more opportunities for teaming and collaboration, more teacher training, and more resources that have valuable differentiation options embedded within them. In addition, we must push back against the message that every student should cross the same bar at the same time, and replace it with the idea that every student must be pushed forward in their individual learning.
You will get no argument from me about the challenges that differentiation entails, but meeting these challenges while respecting the dignity of each learner is, in my mind, a moral imperative. No one can tackle it all at once, but we each must find a place to begin or to grow. It’s no different from what we ask of our students.
 Delisle, James R. “Differentiation Doesn’t Work.” Education Week 34.15 (2015): 28+. Print.
 Welner, Kevin. “The Bottom Line on Student Tracking.” The Washington Post(2013): n. pag. Print.
 Tomlinson, Carol Ann. “Differentiation Does, in Fact, Work.” Education Week. N.p., 27 Jan. 2015. Web. 28 Mar. 2016.
Montessori philosophy uses the “Golden Triangle” to represent the strength and importance of the relationship between teachers, students, and parents, but Gamble, like many other urban schools, struggles with lower levels of parent involvement than we’d like.
It is important to remember that many parents experience anxiety about involvement in their child’s school. This may be because of negative school experiences they had themselves, worries that either their child or their parenting skills will be critiqued, or concerns about their ability to understand the academic instruction that is being provided.
I didn’t fully understand the depth of this tension until I attended my first parent-teacher conference in the role of a parent. Despite the many times I had sat on the teacher side of the table, and regardless that my child was doing well, and I understood what the conversation was going to be about, I was nervous.
What exactly would the teacher say about my child? If my child is experiencing challenges, how will that reflect on me? How can I both make a good impression and serve as an advocate for my child?
As a teacher, there are strategies to alleviate some of this discomfort, which then in turn, allows the parent or guardian to engage fully with school staff to support the academic and developmental growth of the child.
Proactive Conference Strategies
Begin each interaction with something positive about the child
Assume that the parent or guardian is doing the best that they can; however do not assume that they already know how to address concerns.
Do not label a child; rather describe the behavior you have observed
Open the door to further communication
Remember that you are teaching other people’s children; that every student you serve is someone’s child, and they have chosen to share this gift with you.
All schools hold parent-teacher conference nights. In Montessori programs, these look different. Our conferences are Student-Led Conferences, so called because the student leads the meeting. It is the student whose performance is being discussed; therefore the student is in charge of the conversation.
At Gamble, we require all students to hold these conferences at least once, and often twice, a year. This is part of the school contract that our students and parents sign upon enrollment. To manage this, we hold two conference nights each quarter, rather than the required one. Since students lead the conference, multiple conferences happen simultaneously, with teachers checking in at each table to provide information and clarification.
Templates guide students in running the conference. The templates vary according to program, teacher, and grade level, but generally include the following:
how to formally introduce your parents and teachers
preparing materials for presentation
setting explicit goals for moving forward.
This process allows the child to self-report on how things are going at school, and to take responsibility both for what is going well, and for what is not. Additionally, when information is shared together, and everyone hears the same message at the same time, it creates a sense of collaboration between the student, the parent, and the teacher – strengthening that “Golden Triangle.”
It is yet another component of “what we do here,” and another way to develop a school culture of belonging. This is illustrated by the conference we had with Deon and his mother last spring.
Deon had been highly disruptive in the classroom – he had more than 40 logged disciplinary offenses for the year. This was a difficult conference to hold; it was challenging to find anything positive to say. It could easily have turned into a conflict, but because of the way we conduct conferences, the outcome was one of unified support. Deon’s mother ended our meeting with a request for a group hug, and with these powerful words, “We are all on the same team – Team Deon.”
Parents can be a teacher’s greatest allies. Every interaction a teacher has with students’ parents or guardians can serve as an opportunity to strengthen the relationship, even if the conversation is a difficult one. Conference nights can be powerful for all parties involved; never miss an opportunity to connect with a child’s family, to be a member of that child’s “team.”
The morning of the first day of our annual fall staff retreat, I was seated cross-legged on the floor in front of my staff, presenting the Gamble Great Lesson, and I was crying.
I would like to claim I never cry at work. It is, at least, unusual.
I wasn’t alone. Others were crying too. Crying partially because that part of our story is exceptionally sad; the untimely death of two students in the same year deeply affected our school. Crying also because we needed to. In the moment of our most intense sorrow, or the series of endless moments of dealing with grieving students and parents, there simply had not been time to cry. And this time – the crying together – illustrated precisely why we need to tell the Gamble story over and over again, as it changes and grows.
Embedded deep in the Montessori philosophy, including student-directed learning , the Socratic method of questioning and the Adlerian concept of seminar, is an understanding that humans are naturally drawn to explore life’s great mysteries. We want to know the origins of the universe, the origins of life and human beings, how we started to communicate, and the origins of math. In these Montessori great lessons are the roots of the academic disciplines of science, history, reading and writing, and math. And those five stories already exist and are overtly taught to students as part of Montessori elementary philosophy.
Adolescents deeply feel the need to belong. So just as there is a great lesson for each discipline, it is appropriate to create a story to help students (and staff) understand that they are part of something larger – in this case, a school with a powerful history. This was the genesis of the Gamble Great Lesson: if students and staff can understand why the school exists and our core values, and will accept our invitation to belong and make their mark in the school, everyone benefits. When a person feels deep connection to a place or an idea, when they feel they belong, it is a sort of magic. It is the basis of grit, and hard work, and victory … and vulnerability. It makes it safe to try, and safe to fail, and even safe to not fight.
Luckily Gamble Montessori was created in 2005, and I came to the school in 2009, so we can tell the story from the inception, as a proposal from some parents. It includes our slow growth over time, the stories of students and staff who shaped our character, and our academic successes. There are moments where we show how we became who we are. There are negatives that go undiscussed. And there is also deep sadness. Interestingly, when you tell the story again and again, instead of becoming routine or mundane, it gains almost mythological status. It heightens the associated emotions.
Key Components of our Great Lesson
an invitation to see the school as someplace unique, and to enter the storytelling mindset
a brief history of key events in the school’s history
reference to key individuals whose contributions helped shape the history and character of the school
celebrating the students who have made a profound impact on the character of the school
recognition of moments of joy, triumph, sorrow, and loss
an invitation to make a mark on the school through individual contribution and to view the community through the lens of the stories that have been chosen
No video of the Gamble Creation Story exists. It is most powerful because it is told in person. However, in the summer of 2015 I had the opportunity to tell part of the Gamble Creation story at the Know Theatre in Cincinnati. It was an installment of the True____ Series called “TrueGamble”. You can view it here.
I don’t promise (or threaten) that crying is part of the process. That doesn’t demonstrate success or failure, exactly. However, in our case, the Gamble Great Lesson still had something to teach us: the act of telling our story is powerfully therapeutic and cathartic.