The Real Crisis in Education:An Open Letter to the Department of Education

by Krista Taylor

 

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos
U.S. Department of Education
400 Maryland Avenue, SW
Washington, D.C. 20202

Governor John Kasich
Riffe Center, 30th Floor
77 South High Street
Columbus, OH 43215-6117

Superintendent of Public Instruction Paolo DeMaria
Ohio Department of Education
25 South Front Street
Columbus, OH 43215-4183

 

Dear Secretary DeVos, Governor Kasich, and Superintendent DeMaria:

I write to each of you, in my position as a teacher in the Cincinnati Public Schools, to ask for your assistance. I include both federal and state politicians here, as in the past when I had the opportunity to address concerns to a member of the Federal Department of Education, I was told that these issues were under state control, but when, while working as part of a committee examining the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), I addressed the same concerns to members of the State Department of Education, I was told that these issues were under federal control.

As a result, I invite all of you to engage in the conversation together in hope that rather than finger pointing, we can begin to seek solutions.

As we implement new education legislation, I ask that teachers be treated as the experts we are. That we are not just included in the conversation, but that we are leading it. The data demands it, and our children deserve it.

An Artificial Crisis

Politicians and the media have had a field day “exposing,” and attempting to address, what has been described as an educational crisis in America. I, too, believe that we are facing a crisis; however, unlike many in the school reform movement, I do not think that teachers and schools are at the root of this crisis. Rather I think it is the very reform efforts themselves – known generally as the “school accountability movement” — that has caused this concern.

I do not blame the Common Core State Standards. Many people conflate the Common Core State Standards with school accountability measures, but, to be clear, while there are some overlaps between these issues, the CCSS are not to blame in isolation for the challenges we are facing in education today. As a teacher, my personal opinion is that the jury is still out on CCSD, and will remain so until we have experienced several cohorts of students whose education has occurred entirely under CCSD. There are some who believe that this set of standards is not developmentally appropriate for students. This may be, but to be clear, the Standards themselves are merely goals to aim for. I am happy to have a high bar set for both my students and myself, as long as I am given time, support, and resources to attempt to meet that bar, and with the understanding that since students all start at different places, success lies in moving them toward the goal.

The standards are not the problem. The problem is the methodology being used to monitor them.

A Look at the Data

There is a body of information indicating that the supposed “crisis” in American Education has been misreported, and that this myth has been supported and sustained by a repeated skewing of the reported data.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is a national database that has tracked student progress in reading and math since the early 1970s. It is given to students at ages 9, 13, and 17, and the tests have been carefully monitored for consistency over the course of nearly 40 years. The results of this data indicate that reading and math scores have remained fairly static from year to year, with both increasing somewhat over time. For example, the 2012 data indicated that for thirteen year olds, the average reading scores  increased by 8 raw points and average math scores increased by 21 raw points, since the first data reported in 1978.[1]

This does not look like a crisis at all. The “educational crisis” hysteria has seemed to predominantly come from information comparing United States’ educational data with that from other countries.

Whenever we compare educational outcomes, we must be careful to monitor for external factors – for example, when comparing data internationally, we must take into account that the United States educates and assesses all students until the age of 18; whereas some other countries place students in various forms of tracked models and do not include all of these groups in their testing.

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UNICEF’s table on childhood poverty rates in economically advanced countries

Additionally, the United States has a very high child poverty rate. The 2012 UNICEF report listed The United States’ child poverty rate as 34th out of 35 “economically advanced” countries, with only Romania scoring lower.[2]

We know that poverty impacts academic achievement, and this must be taken into account when comparing U.S. scores internationally. For example, when the oft-cited data from the Program for International Assessment (PISA) is disaggregated based on economic status, we can see a trend that clearly indicates that the problem is poverty, rather than instruction.

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PISA rankings disaggregated by poverty levels

United States’ schools with fewer than 10% of students living in poverty score higher than any country in the world. Schools with student poverty rates that are less than 24.9% rank 3rd in the world, and schools with poverty rates ranging from 25% to 49.9% rank 10th in the world. However, schools with 50% to 74.9% poverty rates rank much lower – fifth from the bottom. Tragically, schools with 75% or higher poverty rates rank lower in reading scores than any country except Mexico.[3]

Couple this with the 2013 data that indicates that a majority (51%) of public school students live in poverty in this country, and we see the true depth of the actual crisis of poverty, and its impact on education.[4]

A Crisis of Poverty

Schools with the lowest rates of student achievement are typically those with the highest number of disadvantaged students and the fewest available resources. The problem runs deeper than just funding, however. Children living in poverty often have a specialized set of social-emotional and academic needs. Schools with high percentages of economically disadvantaged students cannot be treated in the same manner as more affluent schools.

Education is neither a business nor is it a factory. We do not start with identical raw materials, and act upon them in a systematic way to produce an identical product. In the same vein, we cannot judge instructional efficacy in a single manner, with a single measure, and expect to get a consistent result. Teaching is a service industry, and we work with human capital. There are myriad factors at play that influence what appropriate expectations are for any given student, but poverty is likely the most impactful of these factors.

Children living in poverty are more likely to be coping with what has been labeled “toxic stress”– caused by a high number of identified adverse childhood events. Factors such as death or incarceration of a parent, addiction, mental illness, and abuse, among other things, have been labeled as adverse childhood events. Poverty, itself, is considered to be a type of sustained adverse childhood experience, and it also is a correlate factor, since living in poverty increases the likelihood of experiencing other adverse childhood events.[5]

We know that these types of severe and chronic stress lead to long-term changes in children’s mental and physical development, and that this directly impacts their performance in school. “On an emotional level, toxic stress can make it difficult for children to moderate their responses to disappointments and provocations. A highly sensitive stress-response system constantly on the lookout for threats can produce patterns of behavior that are self-defeating in school: fighting, talking back, acting up, and, more subtly, going through each day perpetually wary of connection with peers or teachers. On a cognitive level, chronically elevated stress can disrupt the development of what are known as executive functions …, which include working memory, attentional control, and cognitive flexibility.”[6]

We know that children living in poverty face greater academic challenges than their middle and upper class counterparts, and yet, instead of helping this situation, the school accountability movement has chosen to vilify the wrong thing (teachers and schools), and has used standardized test scores as the weapon of choice to add insult to injury.

A Moving Target

In Ohio, there have been so many moving pieces at play that it is impossible to get a statistically valid measure. Over the course of the past three years, schools, teachers, and students have had their performance assessed using a different measurement tool each year. The 2013-2014 school year was the final year for assessment using the old Ohio State Standards and the Ohio Achievement Assessments. In the 2014-2015 school year, we switched to a combination of Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) and American Institute of Research (AIR) assessments based on the Common Core State Standards. Due to the legislation passed which illegalized PARCC administration in the state of Ohio, in the 2015-2016 school year, we administered AIR tests for the full battery of testing. During those same years, Ohio increased the number of grades and subjects areas tested.

In addition to these changes, the identified percentage of correct responses for proficiency on each test has changed each year, and the percentage of students scoring proficient in order to schools to be considered successful in achieving Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) has also increased each year.

So, the standards have changed, the tests have changed, the acceptable percent of correct responses has changed, the required percentage of students achieving proficiency has changed.

Tell me again why we think this is an accurate and reliable system for measuring student achievement?

It is, therefore, not surprising that scores have remained anything but static. For the 2012-2013 school year, Cincinnati Public Schools was rated as being in “Continuous Improvement,” while the school where I teach was deemed “Excellent.” For the 2015-2016 school year, the Cincinnati Public Schools received four ratings of “F” and 2 ratings of “D,” while the school where I teach received 3 “F” ratings and 2 D ratings. (As a high school program, we are not rated in the area of K-3 Literacy.)

There are only two ways to interpret this. Either, over the course of three years, the quality of instruction has declined precipitously (across a district of nearly 3,000 teachers), or the data is invalid. The former assumption is nonsensical; the latter is terrifying based on the weight this data carries when making educational decisions.

Teacher performance evaluations are linked to test scores, School and district report cards are based almost exclusively on test scores, and, student graduation is based on test scores. But if the tools keep changing and the target keeps moving, how is it even remotely possible to measure improvement?

This concern is compounded by the subjectivity of the scores determined for proficiency – the cut scores are neither norm-referenced nor consistent from year to year.

For the 2015-2016 testing, in reading and math, across all grade levels, the screen-shot-2016-12-24-at-11-42-51-pmpercentage of students projected to score proficient or above ranged from 52-66%. This means that even on tests where students were “most likely to pass,” it was anticipated that only 66% of students would do so, and for other tests this was as low as 52%. For many tests, the reality was significantly worse. Only 21% of students taking Integrated Mathematics (Math 2) across the state were deemed proficient or above, and only 24% of students taking the Geometry test scored proficient or above. This is an awfully broad-scale problem to make the assumption that the issue of concern lies with students and teachers, rather than with the testing itself and with the structure of the system of accountability.[7]

And once again, we see that poverty plays a role in these outcomes. For the 2015-2016 school year, 94% of urban schools in Ohio received ratings of D or F. Because of school accountability, and the high-stakes nature of the tests, scores like these cause the testing pressure to ratchet up. Low scores necessarily result in greater time and resources being spent solely to improve these scores.   Some call this “test preparation;” others call it “teaching to the test.” Testing and school accountability result in too much time spent on testing, and on teaching curriculum that loses much of the flexible, creative, engaging, and in-depth instruction that keeps students engaged in learning and educators engaged in teaching. As one former urban school principal, concerned about the state report card, said during a faculty meeting when a teacher dared question how testing was detracting from her carefully crafted curriculum, “The test IS the curriculum! What are you, STUPID?!?!”

An Unavoidable Outcome

In 2013, the American Federation of Teachers reported that in heavily tested grades, up to fifty hours a year was spent on testing and up to 110 hours a year devoted to test preparation. Schools with high percentages of disadvantaged students bear the greatest weight for this, as they tend to have the greatest required gains in testing outcomes. The Center for American Progress notes that students in urban high schools spend up to 266% more time taking standardized tests than students in suburban schools.[8]

And this is the fundamental problem with school accountability measures. They have caused the American public school system to become overly focused on a single measurement of success, and that measure is most punitive to populations that are already struggling.

Standardized test data is one measure of academic achievement, and as such it is valuable, but it is nothing more than a single data point. However, this data point has become so important that it is driving every other aspect of the educational train.

I want that data point – I want it for each of my students individually, and I want it for my class collectively – because it tells me something. But it doesn’t tell me everything, and we are treating it as if it does. How can the snapshot of a test score – given on a certain day, in a certain amount of time, with a specific type of questioning – tell me more than what I know as a result of working with my students hour after hour, day after day, for 40 weeks? It can’t, of course.

A Teacher’s Plea

Teachers are professionals, and we should be treated as such.

We are required to hold, at minimum, a Bachelor’s degree in teaching one or more subject areas; we also must complete significant amounts of additional training every year, and, at least in Ohio, to submit this to the state for re-licensure every five years. Most importantly, teachers are highly practiced in assessment and interpretation of results through our daily work with students and our careful observation of, and reflection on, student learning .

Education is complicated. Student growth is broad and deep, and sometimes happens in fits and starts and other times grows slowly and consistently. This complex process could never be adequately measured by a series of tests.

I know my students. I know when I am moving too quickly or too slowly, and I know when they are succeeding and when they are struggling. To assume that the state can determine this, and can make judgments on the effectiveness of my instruction based solely on a single measure is folly – especially when we know that students in poverty, the teachers who educate them, and the schools that serve them, will be judged most harshly by these measures. In fact, standardized test scores may tell us very little about a teachers’ impact or a students’ future success.

As Paul Tough writes, “A few years ago, a young economist at Northwestern University named C. Kirabo Jackson began investigating how to measure educators’ effectiveness. In many school systems these days, teachers are assessed based primarily on one data point: the standardized-test scores of their students. Jackson suspected that the true impact teachers had on their students was more complicated than a single test score could reveal… He created a proxy measure for students’ noncognitive ability. Jackson’s new index measured how engaged students were in school – Whether they showed up, whether they misbehaved, and how hard they worked in their classes. Jackson found that this was, remarkably, a better predictor than student’s test scores of whether the students would go on to attend college, a better predictor of adult wages, and a better predictor of future arrests.”[9]

School Accountability measures with their fundamental focus on testing reduces teachers’ ability to focus on nurturing students’ “noncognitive ability,” and this is damaging to students and teachers alike — perhaps irrevocably damaging.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is moving us in the right direction by removing the requirement that teacher evaluations be linked to standardized test outcomes, but it doesn’t go far enough, and it leaves the window open for states to continue this practice.

As a nation, we must move away from our obsession with testing outcomes. The only group that is profiting from this is the testing industry. And with 1.7 billion dollars being spent by states annually on testing, they are, quite literally, profiting, and at the tax payers’ expense.[10]

The most critical solution to this is to untie student, teacher, and school accountability measures from testing outcomes, or to combine these scores with a variety of other measures of success. In addition, we need to dramatically reduce the time spent on testing by requiring tests in fewer grades, or not administering tests every year. No high-performing nation in the world tests all students annually.[11]

An Expert Opinion

We are not in an education crisis. We are in a crisis of poverty that is being exacerbated by the school accountability movement and the testing industry. At best, this movement has been misguided. At worst, it is an intentional set up to bring about the demise of the public education system – mandatory testing designed to produce poor results which leads to greater investment made in test preparation programs provided by the same companies who produce the tests, coupled with a related push for privatization of the educational system. All touted as a means to save us from this false crisis.

Politics, not education, got us into this mess, and it is politics that must get us out of it.

We must not go further down this rabbit hole. The future of our educational system, and the future of our children, is at stake. No one who has not worked in the sector of public education should be making decisions about our school system without careful consideration of the insights of those who will be directly impacted by those decisions.

As we move forward with a new federal administration, and as the state of Ohio makes decisions relative to implementation of ESSA, I beg you to not just include teachers and parents in the discussion, but to ensure that we are the loudest voices in the conversation.

I hope that you will consider the issues raised here, and most importantly, that you will listen to the voices of the teachers and parents who are trying so desperately to be heard.

Thank you for your time. I am happy to engage in the conversation further; feel free to contact me at taylorkrista70@gmail.com

 

Sincerely,

Kristina L. Taylor
Intervention Specialist; Team Leader
James N. Gamble Montessori High School
2015 Educator of the Year

 

[1] “LTT – Select Criteria.” LTT – Select Criteria. National Center for Education Statistics, n.d. Web. 22 Dec. 2016.

[2] Adamson, Peter. Measuring Child Poverty: New League Tables of Child Poverty in the World’s Rich Countries. Florence, Italy: UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre, 2012. Web.

[3] “Access Quality Education: Policy News.” Access Quality Education: Policy News. National Access Network, n.d. Web. 22 Dec. 2016.

[4] Tough, Paul. “How Kids Learn Resilience.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, June 2016. Web. 22 Dec. 2016.

[5] “Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study: Leading Determinants of Health.” PsycEXTRA Dataset (2014): 1-5. American Academy of Pediactrics. American Academy of Pediatrics. Web. 20 Dec. 2016.

[6] Tough, Paul. “How Kids Learn Resilience.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, June 2016. Web. 22 Dec. 2016. p. 3.

[7] Dealer, Patrick O’Donnell The Plain. “Scores on Ohio’s High School Math Tests Much Lower than Expected, Sparking Debate over Graduation Requirements.” Cleveland.com. The Cleveland Plain Dealer, 03 June 2016. Web. 22 Dec. 2016.

[8] Mulholland, Quinn. “The Case Against Standardized Testing.” Harvard Political Review. Harvard Political Review, 05 Nov. 2015. Web. 22 Dec. 2016.

[9] Tough, Paul. “How Kids Learn Resilience.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, June 2016. Web. 22 Dec. 2016. p. 9.

[10] Mulholland, Quinn. “The Case Against Standardized Testing.” Harvard Political Review. Harvard Political Review, 05 Nov. 2015. Web. 22 Dec. 2016.

[11] @dianeravitch. “No High-Performing Nation in the World Tests Every Student Every Year.”Diane Ravitch’s Blog. N.p., 22 Nov. 2016. Web. 22 Dec. 2016.

A Dramatic Turn

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Teachers training to lead the JumpStart Theatre program.

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

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

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

jstbfast
Watching a video at the breakfast.

Good morning.

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

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

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

So I’m not here to talk about that.

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

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

So I scratched that.

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

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

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

jstbfastjack
Jack speaking at the fundraising breakfast.

I want to talk about the students.

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

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

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

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

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

Ty’Esha is a conscientious young lady.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

The 7 Gateways: The Need for Initiation

— by Krista Taylor

“From the day she was born I knew she was special.”

“Let me tell you about my child. He is special.”

This message is repeated again and again as one family after another stands at the podium and speaks.

This is Meet the Seniors Night. It serves as a kind of kick-off to Senior year, and it is one of my favorite school events.

At this ceremony, the families of every senior stand with their student, and share the important details of their journey with their child … so far. It is the opportunity to speak publicly about what makes each child unique and precious, and to have this noted and honored by the school community.

The words spoken by one parent this year, “Don’t forget that you are as magnificent as you are,” are an accurate summation of the messages given by each parent to each child.

It proclaims: “This child is special.”

And, indeed, she is. And, indeed, he is. And, indeed, they all are.

In his opening remarks at this event, Jack says, “Acknowledgement is love, spoken aloud.”

And, indeed, it is, for throughout the evening, as family after family acknowledges their student, the room becomes palpably filled with pure love.

photo2But this event is about more than just acknowledgment. It is the beginning of the process of letting go and moving on. It is a rite of passage ceremony that marks the beginning of Senior year and embarkment on the final steps of the journey toward graduation.

Rachel Kessler, in her book, The Soul of Education (which identifies “The 7 Gateways to the Soul of Adolescents) notes the importance of these rituals.

“The need for initiation deals with rites of passage for the young – guiding adolescents to become more conscious about the irrevocable transition from childhood to adulthood. Adults can give young people tools for dealing with all of life’s transitions and farewells. Meeting this need for initiation often involves ceremonies with parents and faculty that welcome them into the community of adults.”

Erin Wilson, Gamble’s Senior Class Advisor, opens the Meet the Seniors event with this statement, “Rites of passage can take on many forms and are present in many aspects of society, but all mark a person’s transition from one status to another. Rites of passage show what social hierarchies, values and beliefs are important in specific cultures.”

Rite of passage rituals date back to earliest recorded history, but were first presented as a critical and universal cultural process by Arnold van Gennup in 1909. Van Gennep identified these celebrations as a structure that serves to ease the difficult transitions from one life phase to another.[1]

Coming of age, or growing up, is hard. It includes both the act of letting go of childhood and that of assuming the weighty mantle of adulthood. Like many processes, this transition is neither linear nor simple. As children progress through adolescence, they move forward and backwards along the continuum of development – sometimes experimenting with ideas, actions, and relationships beyond their years, and then, just as readily, returning to the safety and comfort of childlike behaviors and roles. Gradually, over time, their forays into the world of adulthood become more frequent, and their retreats to the metaphoric nursery occur less and less often, until they disappear entirely.

This is what makes adolescence such a tender time. In the beginning, children stand poised on one side of a great divide, and then, for a time, they stand unsteadily, with one foot balanced precipitously on each side of this chasm. Ultimately, they are ready to step firmly across to the other side, but this doesn’t happen suddenly, or even all at once, and, as a result, we run the risk of failing to note its occurrence at all.

In the modern, Western world, we have few remaining secular rites of passage marking the transition from adolescence to adulthood; however, according to some scholars, including Kessler, human beings have a psychological need to participate in ceremonies that honor and support life’s transitions. Robert Brain even goes so far as to suggest that the absence of these rituals is fundamentally damaging to both individuals and to society as a whole. “Brain asserts that Western societies do not have initiation at puberty; instead of ritual, we have disturbed teenagers and infantile adults. At the age of eighteen, teenagers are ‘magically’ converted into adults”[2]

The work of intentionally creating these critical rites of passage falls on the community of adults who participate in the hard work of guiding children along the path to maturity. Teachers are uniquely positioned to take on this task.

Meet the Seniors Night is one of several rites of passage events that take place during a student’s time at Gamble. Each student’s journey through our secondary Montessori program begins in earnest during the initiation ceremony that takes place at fall camp. This is continued with the ritual of saying good-bye to our middle schoolers and assuring them of their readiness for high school that occurs on the last night of the 8th grade trip to Pigeon Key. By the time our students stand with their parents on Meet the Seniors night at the beginning of senior year, they are nearly transformed from their junior high selves, and this maturation process is complete and finalized when they proudly cross the stage to receive their diplomas at graduation.

Each of these moments is powerful, and for a long time, I believed that they were conducted for the sole benefit of the novitiate. This year, however, for the first time, I fully understood that these experiences are equally impactful for all those who participate in them.

I came to this realization while working with the 8th graders on the final preparations for the 7th grade initiation at fall camp. Each year on the last night of camp, our 8th graders lead a ceremony, that they plan in advance, to welcome the 7th graders to our community. It is a powerful experience that students remember vividly, and although it takes somewhat different forms each year, there are elements that remain consistent from year to year. The ceremony always takes place after dark, and it includes an intentionally developed sense of mystery and apprehensive excitement as the 8th graders assemble separately from the 7th graders who are seated around the campfire. Each seventh grade student is individually invited to process through a line of 8th graders where they are presented with a variety of symbols marking their official initiation into our community.

I had always assumed that the basic function of this ceremony was to help the incoming students feel like a part of the community. This year, however, I understood its purpose differently.

About an hour before the ritual was set to begin, I met with the 8th graders to finalize all the pieces. They are always so excited that it can be challenging to corral their energy and get them to focus. This year, as we were verifying who would fulfill which roles and tasks, I asked who would be escorting the individual 7th graders from their seat at the campfire to the area where the 8th graders would be waiting. Zenyatta, a very quiet and introverted student, blurted out, “That’s me!” I was startled as this was not a role that I expected her to take on. It’s a big job that requires many trips back and forth to the campfire in the dark. I asked who would like to assist Zenyatta with this, as it’s generally a task given to two students. Zenyatta immediately interrupted me by saying, “No. It’s just me. I can do it by myself.” I was a bit perplexed by her insistence, but I had clearly underestimated her investment in this ritual.

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As we lined up to process through the campsite, Zenyatta was practically wriggling out of her skin as she squealed, “I am so excited!” Once we got into position by the campfire, she looked at me and asked, “Is it time? Who should I get first?” Back and forth she went, determinedly locating the next 7th grader at the fire and bringing them over to the initiation ceremony. Each trip was punctuated by her breathless question, “Who’s next?” When my response was finally, “That’s it. That’s the last one.” Her face was crestfallen as she said, “Really? That’s it? It’s over, already?”

This ceremony  is an initiation ceremony for the newly arrived seventh graders, but it serves as so much more. Clearly, for Zenyatta, designing and implementing the ceremony was important in developing her role as a leader; however it also fulfilled an important purpose for the classroom community as a whole. “An intentional rite of passage experience provides the space for the community to transmit its core values and confer the role responsibilities appropriate to the initiate’s stage of life, thus insuring cultural continuity, a sort of knitting together of the generations.”[3] In designing the ceremony, the eighth graders must reflect on the values and principles of the classroom group, and determine how to best confer these ideas, roles, and responsibilities onto the incoming students.

Some of this has become tradition. For example, in the United Leaders community, students always incorporate the reading of the poem “Great Leaders” by Meiji Stewart, which serves as a kind of motto for our classrooms. There are also other traditions such as chanting UL as initiates pass through a corridor of 8th grade students, writing UL on their cheeks in face paint, and distributing certificates bearing each 7th graders name and an observed character strength.

Students also always read statements of welcome, which convey the expectations of the community. While, each year, these are written by different students, the message is remarkably similar – thus ensuring the transmission of core values as noted above.

As evidence, here are excerpts of statements written by different students in different years:

  • “Welcome new 7th graders.  You guys are joining a community of leaders. We help each photo3other, and make sure we make others that join this community feel welcome. You will each get a leadership role and a trait about yourself.”
  • “You have now joined the United Leaders’ family. United Leaders always work together and never give up on each other.   We always welcome new members to the United Leaders. No matter who you are, what you do, or what you like, you will always be welcomed to the United Leaders.”
  • “Congratulations you are now officially a United Leader. Being a United Leader photo4means that you take on leadership roles only a United Leader can take on. You belong in our community. Some days, you might not feel like you do, but you really do. In United Leaders, we don’t break each other, we build each other.”
  • “Welcome to the United Leaders’ ceremony where you will become something – and that something is a leader! As a leader, you will be challenged with obstacles you are expected to overcome. That’s where leadership roles of grit, perseverance, optimism, and helpfulness will come into play.”

The ideas of belonging, leadership, and character strengths are noted year after year. In this way, students are building a cultural legacy for themselves.

And this is the secondary function of these rites of passage.

In the final moments of Meet the Seniors Night, after hours of individual acknowledgments by families, a circle is formed, candles are lit from a flame that is passed around the circle, and Jack shares these closing remarks.img_1268

“I acknowledge you. I am proud of the work you are doing, the trail you arephoto1 blazing. I try to honor you every day by working as hard as I know how so that this is a great senior year, and that your legacy remains strong for as long as I am here to honor it. I promise you this one thing. You will never be forgotten by this school. You will leave an indelible mark.”

An indelible mark. Isn’t that what each of us yearns for? To be remembered. To have made a difference. Rites of passage mark a beginning, but they also mark an ending, and it is this that makes them so bittersweet.

If we ignore the opportunity to note the farewell, we may also lose the power of leaving a legacy. The 8th graders establish their junior high legacy at fall camp; the seniors are invited to consider how the legacy of their senior year will represent them for many years to come.

Kessler is correct. We need rites of passage, for, as she notes, these life transitions are irrevocable. Rituals and ceremonies help us to move from one stage to another, causing us to note both the individual and the collective indelible marks that we have made, so we are better able to let go and move on.

As teachers, we are witness to many of the transitions of adolescence. We must honor these with gravitas, and build into our structure opportunities to formally note these changes. Like with so much of the work we do, this won’t be on any test, and it likely won’t be counted on any formal measures of our effectiveness, but it’s this work of the heart that is so important for our students … and for us.

 

[1] “Rites of Passage.” Rites of Passage. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Dec. 2016.

 

[2] Prevos, Peter. “The Social Importance of Rites of Passage and Initiations.” Horizon of Reason. Third Hemisphere Publishing, 6 Feb. 2001. Web. 18 Dec. 2016.

 

[3] “What Is a Rite of Passage? Why Is It Important?” What Is a Rite of Passage? Why Is It Important? — Rite of Passage Journeys. Rite of Passage Journeys, n.d. Web. 18 Dec. 2016.

 

Mission and Vision

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

He then proceeded to prove it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One could suggest that Gamble Montessori fell short in specificity:

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

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

It is okay, though.

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

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

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

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

To create your mission statement, follow these steps:

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

This last step requires further explanation.

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

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

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

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

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

Please share your mission statement in the comments.

Grading to Encourage Effort

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Josh: “On the scoreboard Friday night.”

Me: “And if you mess up at practice?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Me: “And if you don’t practice?”

Josh: “Well, you play terribly.”

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

Josh: “Fair point.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lead Change by Changing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

The ladder of inference.
The ladder of inference.

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

Weber gives this example:

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

“It’s a dump,” exclaims one.

“It’s beautiful,” raves the other.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes we should.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our staff agreement, final draft

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

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

So how can you avoid climbing the ladder of inference?

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

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

Make your classroom culturally responsive

It was a cold fall afternoon on the loading dock at Hughes Center High School in Cincinnati.  We stood on a platform of concrete several feet above oil-stained pavement, bracketed by two scraped and dented yellow metal poles. I was a beginning teacher in an urban high school, skinny and white, dressed just a bit more formally than everyone around me to avoid accusations of being a student. I was looking everywhere for someone to mentor me. My current target, we will call her Roberta, was contemplatively smoking a cigarette, her black fingers flicking ash absently toward me, her other hand pinching shut the top of her jacket, which was cinched tightly around her waist. I stood shivering next to her.

We were discussing a text we had read by a black author and with a black protagonist.  More accurately, I was asking questions about aspects of black culture that had arisen, and she was providing monosyllabic answers. I don’t remember the details of my questions. I am sure that they were misdirected, however well-intentioned they may have been. Perhaps they were insulting. I do not remember many of her responses, save one.  The one with which she dismissed me, forever: “You can never understand,” she asserted.  “You will never understand.”

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I was stung. I believed then – as I believe now – in the power of the written word to convey the human experience. That is the magic and the lure of reading and writing.  The Holy Grail I sought in every book I opened was that I would, upon conclusion, be able to honestly say about the author, “I know how she feels.” I was incensed that she believed I was incapable of understanding, or that even well-chosen words were incapable of conveying these truths. I invoked Toni Morrison and Zora Neal Hurston and Alice Walker, and I held them up to Roberta. “Are you really arguing that these authors are incapable of expressing their perspective? These women, among the greatest authors of our time, are unable to explain the black experience?” I argued incredulously. Roberta looked at her watch, dropped her cigarette butt on the dock and ground out its flame with a twist of her foot. A cloud of cigarette smoke and the fleeting wave of her fingers underlined her dismissal as she briskly walked to the door.

I had started my intentional search to learn about others who were different from me years earlier while still in college.  That is where I learned the transformative power of reading and writing. Under the tutelage of John Edgar Tidwell at Miami University, I was exposed to experiences of African American people who intrigued and fascinated me. I saw heroes and saints and villains and sinners. I experienced a range of lyricism and storytelling that matched what I had read from a canon of mostly white authors in the Anglo-Saxon tradition at Ashland High School. Ashland, Ohio is a rural town in north central Ohio, predominantly white, and at the time the largest minority population were a handful of first and second-generation families from India. Almost exclusively, my reading featured white male authors writing in the English language, with an occasional nod to other cultures. (Although it was there that I composed my first stanzas to my first song, an imagined additional two stanzas to Langston Hughes’ poem “Hold Fast to Dreams.”)

Somehow in that limited range, I nonetheless had come to believe in the power of literature to reveal a new world and convey it entirely. At Miami University I awkwardly bumped into the edges of that world, calling home almost breathlessly one morning to tell my mom I had seen seven black students sitting at a table together. I had never seen such a gathering. I believed I was in the heart of diversity. I still clung to my mother’s teachings about race, which was the simple mantra that we are all the same.

I had much to learn.

Some of what I learned over time was that my reading had taught me seemingly nothing. For just as Dylan Thomas’ poem cannot prepare you for the death of a parent, The Color Purple does not prepare you to teach in a predominately African-American school. So I asked questions. I paid attention. I was exceedingly polite. I learned about code-switching and ciphering and I learned to admit my earnest desire to do right by others.

Nearing the end of my college experience, still four years away from being dismissed on the Hughes Center loading dock,  I was assigned to observe a teacher and then do my student teaching at Western Hills High School in Cincinnati.

It was here, at West High, that I had a chance to experience life in a predominantly black school. The things I had read about were all there: the passion for learning, the aching poverty, the respect for educators, the ciphers, the storytellers, the Anansis. A depth, a resonance was added to my reading and, more importantly, to my understanding. But I had so many questions, and much more to learn.

It was also here that I learned about another minority group – white Appalachians. A decade later I would encounter Other People’s Words and The Education of Little Tree , meeting a group of people very conscious of how they were viewed by others, and quick to engage formally educated folks such as myself in conversation so they could “take me down a peg.” I proved adept at beating them to it, by insulting myself while proving my success, and quickly fit in.

The author with some of his students at the Harvest Home parade.
Jack takes a selfie with some of his students at the Harvest Home parade.

Twenty years later I would be a veteran principal at a predominantly black urban Montessori high school just over a mile away from my home. In between I learned that one must read about every issue from multiple perspectives. I read Gandhi and Orwell to learn about Indian culture and to question a Eurocentric view of conquest and authority. I read Philip Roth and Elie Wiesel and learned about a Jewish culture not created by the Holocaust but forever haunted by it. I read the words of Chief Joseph which permanently dispelled any notion I may have held that Native Americans had been somehow less noble or brave than those who drove them from the lands that contained their entire history. Alone, reading is not enough, of course. One must take this information and apply it in interactions with others.

Cincinnati Public Schools house students from countless countries who speak over 60 different languages. In Gamble Montessori alone there are first and second generation Americans from over a dozen different countries on multiple continents.

The opportunities for mistakes are many.

How does one create a classroom and a school community that is racially and culturally responsive where there are so many cultures? How does one find the space and time to teach about all of this? How does any person ever come to understand a culture that is different from their own?

I can start by revealing there are two wrong answers. The first wrong answer is to impose one culture on everyone, using the term ‘melting pot’ to suggest that ultimately all that will separate us is a middle name revealing a secret ancestry. The second, equally misdirected wrong answer, is to try to eliminate any vestige of culture at all. Both are equally impossible, and both rob us of the great gift of experiencing new cultures. My mom was partially right: in some ways we are all very much the same. However, it is our differences as much as our similarities that make us more than merely the object of curiosity, but which extend us to a greater sense of what it means to be human, and to challenge our concept of equality. Culture infuses every action, rule, and conversation in the classroom. Your culture, and your students’ cultures, will seep through no matter what you do. So instead of pretending they don’t exist, they should be learned about and celebrated.

Here are some ways we have found to create a place where students are welcome and appreciated for who they are:

Get to know your students.

  • Go to your students’ sporting events or concerts at school.
  • Personally call to invite their parents to Open House and Student-Led Conference nights (you do student-led conferences, right?)
  • Allow students to choose what they research for assignments.
  • Ask questions about their interests, perhaps using a start-of-the-year survey, and then follow up.
  • Go to other sporting events or religious events where they will be performing or working, or visit them at work.
  • Pay attention to their needs.

Learn about other cultures, individually and as a class.

  • Read books or articles by or about people from other countries and groups, especially those represented in your classroom.
  • Intentionally diversify readings and experiences, perhaps by asking “What cultures and countries are you interested in learning about?”
  • Work cultural and ethnic studies into your thematic lessons.

Standardize and teach the rules of grace and courtesy in your classroom – this softens the edges and creates space for being gentle when we make mistakes

  • Expect polite language for even common interactions.
  • Practice what to do in common classroom situations: someone gets angry and storms out, someone drops something fragile or loud, two students bump into each other, two students disagree on an important issue, a class divides over a thorny topic, etc.
  • Provide a place or a time for students to talk to you individually to address concerns about something that happened.
  • Teach students how to mediate their own differences, and include the practice of stating the other person’s position.

Keep reading books and articles about culturally responsive practices and apply what you learn.

I don’t claim to have gotten it all right. I have certainly made mistakes. I have, unfortunately, said things that were offensive in the moment or in hindsight. When these setbacks happen, the best thing, generally, is to acknowledge them and own them, and offer to try and make it right. Ultimately the best approach is to get to know each person individually, and try to meet them where they are.

Last year, one of our seniors had organized a walk through the neighborhood to raise awareness about abusive relationships. The group of twenty or so walkers who had gathered was comprised almost entirely of African Americans, students, and family members. We were milling around in the lobby, talking to each other as we waited for the signal to begin. I recognized a former student in the group and, as I spoke to him, my stomach growled. I had postponed lunch because I knew my senior had planned a lunch with green beans, mashed potatoes, wings, and my personal favorite: fried chicken.

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I was about to make a big mistake as a white guy standing in a crowd of blacks. I asked my former student, “Tell the truth: you’re here for the fried chicken, aren’t you?”

As if hitting a switch, the group got noticeably quieter. I realized what I had done. I had just blurted out a stereotype of black Americans. I owned it. “Oh my God. That sounded really racist, didn’t it?” As he started to nod, and say, “Yes it really did,” I added, “I just said that because I, myself, am here mostly for the fried chicken, I hear her mom can really cook.”

From behind me a voice said, “She can cook, but it was MY recipe. And you can have two pieces.” There was laughter. A reprieve. Another lesson learned.

What are your core values? (You have them, right?)

community

This summer, Scott Pardi, a teacher at Gamble Montessori high school, where I am the principal, called me.

“Jack, can I rewrite Gamble’s core values?”

Scott was part-way through his Montessori certification classes. I understood immediately. He was taking Structure and Organization, and was working on specific artifacts to help manage daily issues in his classroom. His was not an existential question, a core values question per se. I knew what he meant. He was fine with our values: Community, Hard Work, Learning, Peace, Respect.  They are posted throughout our school, on the letterhead and elsewhere. In the classroom, each word has a description created to help students understand the core value. These are legacy descriptions, handed down from our school’s first set of teachers, created on our school’s first ever retreat.

The descriptions are generally fine, with one really awkward exception. In this paragraph, the school is symbolically a hand, and every part contributes to the work. The unfortunate phrasing is “each joint supplies …” I can quote the rest but it is immaterial. You see the problem, right? Especially in a room full of adolescents, in an era of debate over the legalization of marijuana. “Each joint supplies …” could send a student off on an awkward and unproductive tangent. Yes, he could change the descriptions!

Upon telling him that, I also quickly drew a red line, to give him the guidance he sought and to make clear where experience and research told me we could not go: the five values must stay the same. He could rewrite the awkward descriptions. It was important that the values remain constant and consistent across the school. This is explained later in this article. However, the descriptions could – and should – be the subject of continual revision and conversation.

Even better than the core values you have? The ones you use. Those are the perfect core values.

He had started the work already, anticipating my answer, and started to read one of the proposed descriptions to me. He paused self-consciously in the middle and said he needed to wordsmith it, starting to apologize. I stopped him mid-apology. I reassured him that the most important thing was that he was grappling with the meaning of the core values for him, and for implementation in his classroom. He was internalizing them and making them his own. It was impossible to ask more from him in that moment.

Many schools and other organizations have core values. Some call them beliefs. Some embed them in a vision or mission statement and some, like us, separate the three: mission, vision, core values. Gamble Montessori’s values, Community*, Hard Work, Learning, Peace, Respect, were “borrowed” from Clark Montessori, our older sister school, as we attempted to model our program on their success. In Cincinnati Public Schools we have occasionally been encouraged to develop a core set of values, often as part of the Positive Behavior Interventions work that we cycle through regularly. Down the street, our closest high school neighbor, Dater High School, asserts, “At Dater High School we …. Work Hard, Love to Learn, Never Quit, Care, Prepare for the Future.” Pleasant Ridge Montessori, another of the public Montessori elementary schools in Cincinnati, proudly proclaims “PRM ROCKS”, which seems to suggest 5 core values. However, their core values are Respect, Ownership, Kindness, Safety. (Yes, they are aware that this is really “ROKS”!)

These examples point to the obvious truth about core values: the most important thing is to have them. There are no wrong core values, except for the ones you don’t have.

Hard Work

That said, there are a few rules you must follow if you wish to develop core values for your school or organization. The process can be flexible but must meet these three criteria.

  1. Create your core values cooperatively. Deciding what you are about as a group requires a group effort. Mottos, visions, and core values passed down from on high, or from years and years earlier, carry less weight than a shared vision developed together. This does not mean that legacy values and mottos are useless. However, if you are starting from zero, the process of discussing, defining, and articulating your values as an organization increases buy-in and ownership.
  2. Select a manageable number of core values. The examples I include in this article all consist of four or five core values. If you go fewer than that, you run the risk of missing large swaths of behaviors that occur in your school on a given day. If you go much beyond five or six, you dilute your message and they become meaningless or overlapping. This does not mean overlap is necessarily the enemy. Too many “core” values is a problem.
  3. State them positively. This rule is true about all sets of rules, including core values and mission and vision statements. Give people something to live in to, something to become. Many teachers create sets of rules for their classes that define what you can’t do: “Don’t leave your seat without permission,” “don’t interrupt others,” or “don’t talk without raising your hand” are some examples. Stating the expectations positively sends a message of opportunity rather than the message of limitation set by these negative examples. The Dater High School example above is an exemplar of positively stated core values, for instance “Work Hard” provides a clear directive to a person.

The purpose of core values is to instill in the group a common sense of purpose and meaning. Earlier I used the phrase “drew a red line” to describe my reaction to a change in the core values in Scott’s classroom, while allowing him to change the descriptions. This is because as a school, we are invested in setting clear boundaries for our adolescents. These boundaries and expectations, when repeatedly reinforced over time and throughout our spaces, become instinctive and ingrained in us.  This is not because our core values are infallible. In reality, the absolute best core values are the ones you have. Whatever they are.

Even better than the core values you have? The ones you use. Those are the perfect core values.

How does one “use” core values? Below is a starter list of ways to saturate your school with your core values, to reinforce and teach them multiple ways.

Post them in the classroom

Placing attractive and legible versions of the core values in a prominent place in the classroom helps provide a framework for the expectations in your classroom. This is strengthened if the values are posted throughout the school, and as they are utilized in the additional steps below.

Learning

Use them in your classroom and building rules

Relating each of your classroom and building rules to the core values, perhaps using each value as a “header” with specific rules beneath it, you move toward several important goals. First, you justify each procedure or rule as belonging to a larger structure of rules, giving each a raison d’être. Second, it helps students categorize each expectation, which in turn aids their memory and makes it more likely that the rules will be remembered and followed.

Place them throughout the staff manual and the student handbook

Core values can help serve as an organizational structure for your handbooks. Much like with the classroom rules, using them as an organizer helps justify rules and expectations. Placing them here also ensures that they will be seen at least once a year as you review the expectations with you staff and they, in turn, review the expectations with their students.

Peace

Include them in student reflection forms [LINK]

At Gamble, we use reflection on misbehavior as a way to reteach appropriate behavior and help a student understand why they misbehaved. Asking a student to relive an experience later and find different solutions helps provide them with resources and “experiences” to make better decisions in the future. The Gamble reflection form requires the student to identify one or more values that were violated that prompted the need for a reflection. Redirecting students to the core values not only serves as a reminder of the rules, but it also helps them understand that the rules serve a purpose other than providing an annoying roadblock to doing whatever one pleases. Instead, behavior is understood to need to match these easily remembered values. A student in a future new situation is likely to remember one of the core values and apply it to improve their behavior. This is a much better strategy for teaching behavior than trying to imagine the countless permutations of behaviors throughout the school and to teach each individual scenario.

In student commitment forms [LINK]

Many schools ask students and parents to make a series of commitments as they enter the school or progress through to new teams. This is certain to include following the rules and not committing certain infractions. It may also address doing work of a certain quality and exhibiting exemplary behavior. Using the core values in this document, especially in combination with the other places above, helps send a unified message to students.

respect

Use them on your school letterhead and other public sites

Part of your saturation process means using the core values in correspondence other than just with teachers and students. message you send outside the school is important too. Showing partners and parents and others that you have a thorough commitment to your values sends a message that a school has thought about what it expects from students. In Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, one of the habits is “beginning with the end in mind.”  Espousing these views of the values we hope for a graduate to possess is powerful. Placing them on public documents is an attractive trait to parents who might have to wade through a wide range of school choices, or might be seeking reassurance that their only choice is a good one. Seeing that your school seeks to instill important values in your child builds confidence and trust.

You and your school have accepted the mission to educate a child beyond mere standardized tests and common standards. Adopting and using core values as a guide and structure for the teaching of behaviors and habits helps create a shorthand for achieving your loftiest goals. The work is not simple, for sure, but it is made simpler by providing an agreed-upon framework of common core values.

Scott envisioned an important 6th core value for his classroom.
Scott envisioned an important 6th core value for his classroom.

Something was in the air this summer. Soon after talking with Scott Pardi about his edits to our core values descriptive paragraphs, Josh Vogt, a veteran teacher at Gamble, brought them up too. Josh is in the important role of Montessori Coordinator. He expressed frustration that our core values are the same as our sister school – we had not written them ourselves. He had written some new possible values down on a sheet of paper, but he wasn’t quite happy with them. Our conversation ranged over a couple of days until a summer meeting where he appeared to have reached an important breakthrough.

“I’ve got them,” he announced, with seriousness.

“Them?”

“Yes, the new core values.” He held up a list of hand-written words and phrases on a lined sheet of paper. It was long. “I just need you to approve them.” He gestured as if handing the paper to me to sign, offering me his pen. There were a couple of columns of values, one of which carried over to the back.

“Long list.” I observed.

“One hundred and six.”

“One hundred and six?”

“Or thereabouts,” he conceded. “Some of them feel a bit redundant. Might be about 100 though.”

“Sounds like you’ve covered everything.”

“I believe I have,” he nodded modestly. “It’s all in there. Honesty, Trustworthiness, Caring for others. Bravery.” He pointed at the list as he said each one. “All the important ones.”

He was right, and it underscored an important point for me. The best core values are the ones you have, and even better are the ones you use. Almost everything he had written down could plausibly be a core value at a reputable school. But the list was so long! I suggested, “I think we might need to simplify a bit.”

“Simplify?” he asked.

“Yes, this seems a bit excessive. You know, in an age of electronics.”

“Oh? … Hmm. I see what you’re saying.” He took the list back. When I saw him later that afternoon I had almost forgotten our conversation.

“I’ve got it.” He pronounced.

“What?”

“The solution to our core values. I have them. Final version”

“Already?” I was surprised. “Final version?” I was remembering the long list and imagining how he could have winnowed it down to five or six.

“Yes.” He paused dramatically. “Emoji’s.”

“Emoji’s?”

“Yes, and we will only need five: smiley face, frog, 100%, American flag, honey pot.”

“The kids will understand it?” I asked.

He nodded reassuringly, “Oh yeah.”

“But will we?”

“We can learn.”

 

What are your school’s core values? We would love it if you could include them in the comments below.

Josh's mostly tongue-in-cheek core values suggestion

* Here and throughout the article I capitalize core values. The English teacher in me cringes. However, I think it is important to note that core values are proper nouns because they play a powerful role in a school, and therefore merit this capitalization.

The Seven Gateways: How to Teach the Whole Child

-by Krista Taylor

After any lesson that involved rich discussion, Alex would sidle up to me with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, and say something like, “So if everything started with the Big Bang, what was there before that?”

Then he’d point at me and proudly say, “Can’t answer that one, can you, Ms. Taylor? Makes you think, doesn’t it?” Then, off he would go to his next class.

This is why I teach: to witness students come alive in the way Alex had – to be curious about the world and their role in it, and to be courageous enough to ask the big questions, knowing in advance that perhaps there are no real answers. To teach the whole child.

Teaching the whole child. We reference this frequently, but do we really know what it means? Do we all share the same definition? Do we know how to do it intentionally?

This concept of teaching more than academics, of developing students as well-rounded citizens is not new. As early as 1818, education was being defined as far broader than what fits neatly into the curricular content areas. In the 1818 Report of the Commissioners for the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson noted the importance of the role of education in the development of:

  • Morals
  • Understanding duties to one’s neighbors and country
  • A knowledge of rights
  • Intelligence and faithfulness in social relations

One hundred years later, in 1918, the National Education Association, indicated a similar function of schooling, as delineated in The Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education

  • Health
  • Command of the fundamental processes
  • Worthy home membership
  • Vocation
  • Citizenship
  • Worthy use of leisure
  • Ethical character

In the mid to late 20th century, the “Open Education” movement put forward the need to include the following in classrooms:

  • Creativity
  • Invention
  • Cooperation and democratic participation in the classroom
  • Lifelong learning

And more recently, as the concept of “happiness” is being explored as something that includes specific, teachable components, it has been proposed that schools intentionally develop these qualities in students:

  • A rich intellectual life
  • Rewarding human relationships
  • Love of home and place
  • Sound character
  • Good parenting ability
  • Spirituality
  • The pursuit of a job that one loves [1]

Phew, that’s a lot to cover in addition to reading, writing, and arithmetic!

And yet, it’s hard to argue with the importance of each of the items on each of those lists.

Teaching the whole child. We may not be able to clearly articulate it, or to agree on the exact same definition, but we certainly know its importance and we recognize it when we see it.

Alex loved sharing his big thoughts with me. I knew I had him hooked; I knew that he was engaging in his education far beyond the academic component. I knew that he was experiencing a rich, intellectual life, creativity, and a love of learning that would extend far beyond the classroom.

But how had I, and all of his teachers before me, helped him get to this place? What are the inroads to engaging students in this way? How do we teach “the whole child?”

Rachel Kessler investigates this concept in her inspiring and hope-filled book, The Soul of Education: Helping Students Find Connection, Compassion, and Character at School. Her use of the word “soul” is secular in nature, describing the teaching of the whole child to which so many of us ascribe. However, it can be challenging to integrate this into our classrooms alongside and in between the many, many requirements that currently exist in our educational system.

None of those additional whole child pieces were included in the No Child Left Behind Act, and while the Every Student Succeeds Act does touch on the importance of this, it fails to provide guidance on how to achieve it, stating little more than that schools should foster safe, healthy, supportive environments that support student academic achievement. [2]

Perhaps, in the current political-educational environment, failing to clearly define this type of instruction is for the best, as the elements of teaching the whole child both predate and supersede the current testing compulsion, and are entirely immeasurable.

In the Forward to Kessler’s book, Parker J. Palmer, founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal, and a world-renowned writer, speaker and activist, includes this reflection on the school accountability movement:

“We took teaching and learning – that ancient exchange between student and teacher and world in which human beings have always explored the depths of the soul – and started thinning it down into little more than the amassing of data and the mastering of technique… Kessler’s book does not ignore the standards movement, but responds creatively to the deeper yearning behind it: the desire to truly engage and equip today’s young people for effective learning. We must address what has heart and meaning for them if we want them to learn.”[3]

Through her work teaching adolescents, Kessler identified what she coined as image“Seven Gateways to the Soul.” Kessler arrived at this concept through compiling the reflections of her students over the course of many years and noting the categories they clustered into. Her gateways are, in essence, strategies for reaching the hearts and minds of adolescents –a kind of roadmap for how to teach the whole child. They are not linear, however – there is no particular order to them, they need to be traversed many times, they often overlap, and individual students will find varied levels of meaning in each of the different gateways.

  • The yearning for deep connection
  • The longing for silence and solitude
  • The search for meaning and purpose
  • The hunger for joy and delight
  • The creative drive
  • The urge for transcendence
  • The need for initiation [4]

Note the powerful verbs that Kessler uses – yearning, longing, search, hunger, drive, urge, and need. These gateways are not optional. Our students need us to provide the experiences for them. While it can be challenging to find ways to weave these components into the precious time we have with our class, there are infinite ways we can do so, and we must find a way.

This post serves merely as an overview of Kessler’s work. Each gateway will be explored individually and thoroughly in a future post. At Gamble, there are a variety of ways that we weave the seven gateways into our curriculum. Many of those are listed here; however they serve as nothing more than a beginning point. Replicating what we do is not necessary. Determining what is right for your students is. Engaging students through experiences aligned with Kessler’s seven gateways is teaching the whole child.

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The yearning for deep connection

The Yearning for Deep Connection

“The yearning for deep connection describes a quality of relationship that is profoundly caring, is resonant with meaning, and involves feelings of belonging, or of being truly seen and known. Students may experience deep connection to themselves, to others, to nature, or to a higher power.”

  • A junior high community structure, where students remain with the same class of peers and teachers for most of the school day, helps to forge strong interpersonal bonds.
  • At high school, a similar experience is created through a 2-year looping cycle.
  • A bell schedule built to accommodate student-run meetings during the first fifteen minutes of each day
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The longing for silence and solitude

 The Longing for Silence and Solitude

“The longing for silence and solitude, often an ambivalent domain, is fraught with both fear and urgent need. As a respite from the tyranny of ‘busyness’ and noise, silence may be a realm of reflection, of calm or fertile chaos, an avenue of stillness and rest for some, prayer and contemplation for others.”

  • Solo time, based on Maria Montessori’s development of “The Silent Game,” provides students with the experience of silence and solitude at least once each week
  • Mindfulness practices are demonstrating nearly unbelievable results in school districts that are implementing them with fidelity. At this point, at Gamble, we are merely dabbling in this work, but current research indicates that it is likely to be a growing trend.
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The search for meaning and purpose

The Search for Meaning and Purpose

“The search for meaning and purpose concerns the exploration of big questions, such as ‘Why am I here?’ ‘Does my life have a purpose?’ ‘How do I find out what it is?’ ‘What is life for?’ ‘What is my destiny?’ ‘What does my future hold?’ and ‘Is there a God?’”

  • Montessori Secondary curriculum is based on what are called “cycles of study.” Cycles of study are a quarter or a semester in length, and they focus on a theme that explores big questions.
  • Montessori wrote about the importance of real-world experiences. At Gamble, students participate in field experiences and intersessions each year. Some of these, like the trip to Pigeon Key, serve to expose students to the wonder of the world around them. Others, like the college and career intersessions that take place during students’ junior and senior years, guide students toward future academic and career choices. Both help students to grapple with life’s deep questions.
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The hunger for joy and delight

The Hunger for Joy and Delight

“The hunger for joy and delight can be satisfied through experiences of great simplicity, such as play, celebration, or gratitude. It also describes the exaltation students feel when encountering beauty, power, grace, brilliance, love, or the sheer joy of being alive.”

  • Group initiatives, or cooperative, team-building experiences, are part of the Montessori components we conduct regularly at Gamble.
  • And, of course, we experience joy and delight on our field experiences and intersessions.
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The creative drive

 The Creative Drive

“The creative drive, perhaps the most familiar domain for nourishing the spirit in school, is part of all the gateways. Whether developing a new idea, a work of art, a scientific discovery, or an entirely new lens on life, students feel the awe and mystery of creating.”

  • Kessler notes that creativity is something that is commonly woven into curricula. Despite budget cuts that seem to imply the opposite, exposing adolescents to art, music, and drama is critical to their development.
  • Choice work is a component of both Montessori philosophy and current educational best practices. Giving students the option to create a poster, a 3-D model, write a play or a poem, or create illustrations to demonstrate understanding is a very common way to embed creativity into the classroom.
  • One of the graduation requirements at Gamble is a Senior Project. In this broad independent study, students have complete determination over the topic they choose to study.
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The urge for transcendence

 The Urge for Transcendence

“The urge for transcendence describes the desire of young people to go beyond their perceived limits. It includes not only the mystical realm, but experiences of the extraordinary in the arts, athletics, academics, or human relations. By naming and honoring this universal human need, educators can help students constructively channel this powerful urge.”

  • At Gamble, like at most schools, students are provided with extracurricular opportunities. Auditioning for a play, trying out for a team, achieving a personal best or breaking a record are all ways that students can push past their perceived limits.
  • In the spring of students’ 7th grade year, we go on a multi-day leadership experience held at a local YMCA camp. This is a “challenge by choice” experience, and we ask students to push themselves beyond their comfort level.
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The need for initiation

 The Need for Initiation

“The need for initiation deals with rites of passage for the young – guiding adolescents to become more conscious about the irrevocable transition from childhood to adulthood. Adults can give young people tools for dealing with all of life’s transitions and farewells. Meeting this need for initiation often involves ceremonies with parents and faculty that welcome them into the community of adults.”

  • The first experience students have with initiation at Gamble happens on the last night of fall camp.
  • Mirroring the fall camp initiation ceremony, there is a similar event on the last night in Pigeon Key, Florida.
  • Of course, graduation is the ultimate school-based rite of passage ceremony. At Gamble this is done in two stages
    • At Meet the Seniors night, each family gets to introduce their child to the Gamble community, and we get the opportunity to view each of these students from the perspective of their family. Each student is given time to be the most important person in the room.
    • Commencement is a monumental celebration in any school. The things that make Gamble’s graduations special are described here.

There are many, many ways to honor adolescents’ yearning, longing, search, hunger, drive, urge, and need for each of the gateways that Kessler has identified. This teaching of the whole child is at least as essential as any set of standards or curriculum requirements; as a society, we have been aware of that for several hundred years. There are infinite possibilities that will meet these needs; as educators we must seek them out and implement them.

Over the course of the next few months, we will more deeply explore each gateway – describing in full what we do at Gamble to address each, investigating ways other schools have done the same, and inviting you to share your work along these lines, as well as ideas for going deeper.

[1] Noddings, Nel. “What Does It Mean to Educate the Whole Child?” Educational Leadership, vol. 63, no. 1, Sept. 2005, pp. 8–13.

[2] “Federal Policy.” Casel. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Sept. 2016.

[3] Palmer, Parker. “Forward.” The Soul of Education: Helping Students Find Connection, Compassion, and Character at School, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Alexandria, VA, 2000, pp. v-vi.

[4] Kessler, Rachael. The Soul of Education: Helping Students Find Connection, Compassion, and Character at School. Alexandria, VA, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2000.

You Never Know Where You Will Find Angels

 – by Krista Taylor

We say that the best learning is experiential. We say that it’s critical to take students out of the classroom, so they can truly understand the implications of the work.

What if I told you that this was true for teachers as well?

Fall camp is always remarkable, and I have written about it previously.  Each year, this camping experience provides many stories about witnessing the best in our students, and somehow the themes of these stories are always the same – inclusivity, belonging, helpfulness, kindness, generosity, challenge, perseverance, and leadership. While these are things that are difficult to teach in the classroom, they are lessons that seem to occur spontaneously at camp.

I knew this already. I knew that camp inspires students to rise to challenges. I knew that camp provides teachers with the opportunity to witness strengths in students that don’t appear in the classroom. But, for the first time this year, camp opened my eyes to something new. This year, camp taught me about poverty.

Every year we have students who aren’t able to attend our camping trip because of an inability to pay for it. This year, Christ Church Cathedral  provided Gamble with a generous $2,500 grant to help cover the cost of camping for these students. This meant that, for the first time ever, our neediest students would be able to join us. You never know where you’ll find angels.

Ensuring that these students participated in this experience, however, was not a simple process. We first had to set parameters on how the money would be disbursed. It was immediately divided into four amounts of $625 in order to fund students in each of our four middle school communities. But then what? How do we decide who receives it? How much should each family be given? Should behavioral concerns be taken into consideration?

This is a harder conversation than it initially appears. My team sat down together and spent several hours hashing out the details of a plan that felt fair and compassionate. We knew that families should be obligated to contribute some of the money – both to honor their dignity and to ensure their buy-in to our program. We debated the merit of using the funding to support students who were likely to be behaviorally challenging at camp. Did they deserve to go as much as another student who also needed financial support, but was better at following expectations? How much should we give each family? How could we use the money to reach the greatest number of students? Here are the parameters that we ultimately agreed upon.

  • Behavioral issues would not exclude students from receiving funding – in many ways, it is these students for whom the experience is most important.
  • All families would be required to pay a minimum of $20 toward a student’s camp costs
  • We would send out a robocall to all families asking them to contact us if they needed financial assistance
  • We would then contact each of these families individually and begin the conversation by asking how much of the cost they could contribute

It was Jack, our principal, who helped us develop this final piece as a means of determining how much support each family should receive. He advised us to trust our families — to let them know that we were trying to help everyone who needed help, and to trust them to come through with as much of the money as they could. Having these conversations was remarkable. Some families who initially asked for assistance, ultimately were able to come up with the entire amount when we offered them a few days extension for payment. One family who had recently experienced homelessness, divorce, and mental health issues, has two students in our community, and thus, double the cost. They found a way to scrape together half of the money. Other families needed more.

During one of these phone calls, Justin’s mother confided that she didn’t think she was going to be able to make the payment this year. When I asked her how much she thought she could contribute. She quietly said, “Honestly, right now, I don’t have anything.” My heart hurt as I replied, “We’re asking all families to make a minimum contribution of twenty dollars. I paused, desperately seeking words that wouldn’t instill shame. “Can you do that much? If you can, we can cover the rest.” She broke down and tearfully said, “Yes. I think I can find a way to come up with twenty dollars. Thank you. Thank you so much.” “You’re welcome,” I practically whispered. I’m not even sure we actually said good-bye before hanging up. I cannot even imagine the humility that it must take to admit that you have so little that coming up with twenty dollars is a challenge, but I am grateful that she was able to honestly share her reality with me, so that I could help. And I am even more grateful that I had funding with which I could offer the help.

These conversations were uncomfortable and somehow, simultaneously, both uplifting and heart-breaking. We quickly realized that we didn’t have enough funding to cover every student’s need. Beau was casually discussing this challenge with his in-laws, Nancy and Kevin Robie, over dinner one evening. They surprised him by saying, “How much would you need to send them all?”

Honestly, we didn’t know; we hadn’t had financial discussions with all of our families yet. If they each needed the full amount, it would total just over a thousand dollars. When Beau hesitantly shared this information, they miraculously said, “Ok. We can do that.” You never know where you will find angels.

Being able to say yes to every request, and not having to pick and choose between families, was a tremendous gift. Ultimately, it turned out that we only needed an extra $327, and with the support of both the Christ Church Cathedral donation and this private one, twelve students were able to go to camp who wouldn’t have been able to go otherwise. But there were two students who stood out as being the most profoundly impacted.

Unlike Justin, who has an involved parent and has always been able to pay for our field experiences in the past, Micah and Derek have never been able to participate in any of them. Both of these students have uninvolved parents, both clearly come from financially unstable households, both have cognitive disabilities, both exhibit disruptive behavior in the classroom, both struggle with academic content and focus, and both are somewhat ostracized by their peers.

When we considered how to best use our donations, these two students came to mind immediately. However, ensuring their attendance on the trip was no easy task. We sent home our permission form packet with each of them multiple times, and yet the day before the trip, neither of them had their forms turned in. We repeatedly called home trying to get everything in order, but hadn’t been able to reach anyone. Finally, the day before the trip, Micah’s mother came in to sign the paperwork, but she did not turn in the required twenty dollars.

On Tuesday morning, the day of the trip, Micah came into my classroom just before school started – all packed for camp; although with a blanket roll instead of a sleeping bag – and said dispiritedly, “Ms. Taylor, my mom didn’t pay.” I said, “I know, Micah, we have to call her again.” When we called, she told us that she had given the money to Micah, but he had lost it. Perhaps true; perhaps not. We reminded her that she had to pay the $20 in order for him to attend. Finally, less than an hour before we boarded the bus, she came to the school office to pay and noted that she had been at work when we called, and upon overhearing her end of the conversation, one of her customers handed her a ten dollar bill. You never know where you will find angels.

Micah tentatively asked, “So I can go now?” It was such a relief to be able to say, “Yes.”

Derek’s situation was similar. The day before the trip, he had no money and no forms turned in. That evening when we finally reached his mom, she indicated that she had no money to give us, but that we could call his father. We had been teaching Derek for a year, but had no idea that his father was in the picture. When we reached him, he indicated that he’d come to the school and pay the $20 the next morning. In addition, he’d go out that evening and purchase a sleeping bag and flashlight for Derek so that he could come to camp fully equipped. Early the next morning, Derek’s dad was in the office as promised. He paid the $20; the grant provided $119. You never know where you will find angels.

Derek arrived at school with a giant smile. “Ms. Taylor, I get to go! I’m going to camp!”

At camp, we had the opportunity to see these children contribute in a way that they aren’t able to demonstrate in the classroom. imageWhile Derek was canoeing the first day, a canoe flipped over and headed downriver without its boaters, only to wind up lodged in the bank quite a ways downstream. After a teacher spotted it and pulled the group over to try and retrieve it, Derek was the first to volunteer to hike down the bank with a parent chaperone to dump it and bring it back to the group. He did this without complaint and took tremendous pride in his ability to assist the group.

Micah canoed the second day, and we had another swamped canoe. This time it came to rest in a marshy area of the river. When Micah’s boat caught up to it, he immediately jumped out into waist-deep water and started helping to get it flipped over, emptied, and righted. This is no easy task – especially for someone who has never been canoeing before.

Both boys noted that one of their favorite parts of camp was being on cook crew. (Over the course of our four days together, every student participates in cooking a meal for the 55 people at camp.) This is no easy task, and initially I believed that they enjoyimg_1050ed it because it allowed them to contribute to the good of the group. This was certainly part of it. Both boys noted in their journals that they felt good about doing tasks like hauling water from the pump to the campsite, and cooking food such as sausage breakfast sandwiches and vegetable soup.

But it was more than that. At camp, students are not permitted to go anywhere without a buddy; this means that pairings happen frequently and fluently. Both boys struggle with social inclusion at school, but at camp they were overheard gleefully exclaiming, “Why does everybody want to be my buddy? People are all the time asking me if I’ll be their buddy!” Being on cook crew is a group task, and it requires everyone working together, often in pairs or trios. In order to be successful at the task, everyone has to contribute and everyone has to be included. Micah and Derek were wanted and needed by the group, and they felt great about that.

All of this warms my heart. That is not to imply that everything was perfect. It, of course, was not. Derek needed constant prompting to get his packet work completed, and Micah stayed up until 3:30 one night talking in his tent – apparently to himself.img_1064 But at camp, Micah and Derek were also able to shine. Their classmates had the opportunity to see their strengths. Their teachers had the opportunity to see their strengths. But, most importantly, they had the opportunity to see their own strengths. Helpfulness, perseverance, belonging . . . those are beautiful qualities to witness unfolding. You never know where you will find angels.

And yet, this still isn’t the end of my story. On our last day, I had separate, but similar, heart wrenching conversations with each of them. Mid-morning, Derek asked me if we were going to pack lunches again that day. I told him that we were, whereupon he asked me if we had to eat it there, or if he could take it home with him. He was disappointed when I told him that we had to eat at camp.

Later that day when I asked Micah what his favorite thing was about camp, he said, “Canoeing . . . and the food.” I asked him about the homemade vegetable soup that we had prepared the day before. He said he really liked it, and that he had never had vegetable soup before.   Then he said, “Ms. Taylor, are we gonna get to eat dinner here tonight?” When I told him no, he disappointedly said, “Awww, man!”

I smiled and laughed at his response, and then, in the next moment, caught my breath as I understood what he was saying to me. Every other student was over-joyed to get to go home and eat a non-camp meal, but Micah wanted to stay for dinner.  He wanted to have dinner at camp because meals at camp are predictable and nutritionally-balanced, and there is always more than enough.

I wanted to cry.

A few hours later, this feeling was compounded when Derek saw the remaining food that we were packing up to take back to school. He asked, “What are you going to do with that?” We told him that we would send it home with students. He said, “Really? All that bread? Can we take that cheese, too?”

Yes, Derek, you can take the cheese, too.

I already knew that these students had challenging home environments, but I don’t think I really understood what that meant until these experiences at camp. It was suddenly crystal clear that these children simply didn’t have enough to eat at home. They were experiencing food insecurity right before my eyes.

At camp, I had the privilege of being able to provide both Micah and Derek with four days’ worth of the security of regularly-scheduled, healthy meals. This was a benefit of our camping trip that I had never overtly witnessed before. This was the deep learning that was new for me this year, and this learning is equal parts gift and challenge. I know that for four days, these students ate heartily and nutritiously. I now know that this was a unique experience for them. I don’t know how to fix that. I, of course, already knew that poverty is a crisis that impacts many of my students, but never before had I seen or felt it in such a tangible way.

Four days is not enough. I also know that. But it is a beginning, and the provision of food creates a trust that may be more profound than any other. I’m not sure how to continue building on that trust, but I know that we have established a fragile foundation. You never know where you will find angels.