The Big Short: When the Education Bubble Bursts

Jack M. Jose

On September 15, 2008, the giant financial company Lehman Brothers, unable to meet its obligations to borrowers, completely collapsed, closing its doors and halting all transactions as it fell swiftly into unthinkably large debt. 25,000 Lehman employees lost their jobs.[1] The company would never re-open. In the same week, the largest banks in the United States all shared warnings of nearing a similar fate. This event was the primary public face of the start of the Great Recession, the greatest economic downturn in modern history. The US government stepped in to bail out the largest banks before they followed suit with Lehman Brothers, eventually spending trillions of taxpayer dollars to shore up our economy. The Lehman crash, and the bank crash in general, was connected with the bursting of the US housing bubble, where suddenly home prices crashed back from extravagant highs, costing homeowners billions in actual and unrealized gains in their personal net worth. In the end, billions of dollars of value of stocks, companies, and people’s homes and jobs were essentially vaporized. Even after 5 years of sustained job and economic growth following the official end of the recession in 2012, by some measures the United States has not yet unburied itself from this financial disaster.

There were many contributing factors to this economic crash, and many books and even movies helped to tell parts of the story. One best-selling book-turned-movie exploring the causes of this crash was The Big Short, by Michael Lewis.

“Wait,” you say. “This is an education blog. Why are you discussing the economy?”

Current conditions in the educational system in the United States, and particularly in specific states, resemble the situation that preceded the crash and Great Recession. A generation of reforms, from the Reagan-era Nation at Risk report to the transformative and bipartisan Bush II No Child Left Behind law to the Obama-era Every Student Succeeds Act, have eroded safeguards that tied tax dollars and community oversight to the education of our children. This has left our nation open to an educational crash, the sort of which has never happened, for which there is no roadmap or precedent, just as there was no precedent for the real estate and banking collapse in 2008. For many of us, just as for many experts in the banking industry, this collapse was a complete shock. Nothing could have prepared us for the long-lasting effects of the crash, and only in hindsight could we see all the signs of the impending crisis. Only a few people, generally well-read experts in the field who had proven willing to buck prevailing wisdom, were able to see the coming default. No one listened to them.

The Great Recession was caused by a number of related factors in the economy. One cause of the crash was deregulation. In a major windfall to banks and other lending institutions, Congress loosened restrictions on lending practices, allowing for larger and riskier loans, with fewer safeguards for borrowers. New companies, envisioning windfall profits, sprang up seemingly overnight and began competing for customers.  First time and repeat borrowers, excited for an opportunity to buy their first or their biggest house, flooded into the market, and found they had a wide array of companies competing to sell them a loan as cheaply as possible.

This deregulation combined with an extreme profit motive allowed for a second cause to emerge: predatory lending. With deregulation there came an expansion of banks, some of which became “too big to fail.” This phrase did not mean that they could not fail. It just meant that their failure would cause widespread economic disaster. The US government would, in this case, be forced to prop them up and to guarantee that their loans were covered. These institutions were assumed to be essentially unbreakable. Deregulation also meant such growth in the banking industry that new, non-bank companies got into the business of offering home loans and dealing mortgages. These new lending institutions looked and acted less and less like traditional banks, and they began enticing and even recruiting home buyers in the full knowledge that they would be unable to pay off the loans. This happened even while these institutions paid exorbitant salaries to CEOs, often with sales bonuses for the middle managers, creating incentives to make riskier and riskier loans.

Additionally, the oversight for these new kinds of banks, making these new kinds of loans, was essentially nonexistent. Traditional systems of measuring the effectiveness and liquidity of banks were overmatched by these new rules. The use of innovative and complex accounting, perhaps intentionally, made oversight of any sort more difficult. Specifically, the creation of credit default swaps and collateralized debt obligations made it nearly impossible to assess the riskiness of investments. It is hard to judge the risk inherent in buying something most people cannot understand or explain.

Finally, signs of an impending crash were ignored by almost everyone. Time and time again lenders and monitors alike allowed themselves to participate in what now is understood to have been “magical thinking”, the belief that these risky pools of unexplainable investments would somehow continue to increase in value forever. In fact, at times the warnings were so loud that Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, who was notoriously reluctant to speak directly to future trends or concerns, made multiple public statements to dismiss these warnings. Bruce Bartlett, a former Treasury Department economist, catalogued many of those warnings in his first article as a regular columnist at Forbes Magazine.[2]

These factors have parallels in the current movement in education, as described below.

Deregulation – creating the bubble

In order to encourage the growth of the “ownership society” as espoused by President George W. Bush during his successful Presidential campaign[3], his administration and a Republican congress undertook several initiatives aimed at increasing home ownership. These were well-intentioned and broadly popular bipartisan acts aimed at placing more people in their own homes, and prompting them to be better citizens in general, because they would now have a stake in the success of the community. However, these enticements created unforeseen consequences. Homeowner down payment assistance and efforts to simplify home-buying drew in record amounts of new home owners. Some of these home buyers were not, according to traditional measures, a good bet to stay in the house and pay off their loan. Unscrupulous lenders capitalized on these eager new buyers, offering them larger and riskier loans than ever before. Folks with bad credit got loans, folks with good credit got larger loans than they could handle, all with the promise of future gains in the value of these houses.

The expansion of the charter school movement in the US parallels this change in the banking system, and seems poised to create a similar bubble. While a long-established system of education exists, with a history dating back to the first colonies on Plymouth Rock, and overseen by elected school boards in nearly every city and county in our country, recent deregulation in education law has created an expansion of school-like entities called charter schools. These schools often get permission to operate with a different set of rules than public schools, typically privileges to experiment with curriculum, seat time, salary scales, and more, often under the guise of being “laboratory schools”, free to experiment with ideas that might work better for education. These types of schools flourished under the Obama administration, and seem set to practically explode during the current administration. Just last week Florida approved $200M for a major expansion of charter schools in the Sunshine State.[4] In addition to brick and mortar schools, largely to save on costs associated with maintenance and transportation, charter schools have innovated and quickly expanded online learning. Ohio, California, and Pennsylvania, lead states in enrolling students in online schools, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS). And the expansion has been accelerated through the use of novel, some might say experimental or even suspect, techniques for delivering education. In the 2014-15 school year, 38,500 students in Ohio alone took all of their classes on computers from home through an online school.  For the 2015-16 school year, Ohio paid online schools $267 million to educate those students — more than a quarter of what it paid all charter schools in the state. The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) and the Ohio Virtual Academy (OVA), with 15,000 and 11,000 students respectively, are the largest online schools in Ohio. More on ECOT later.

In May of 2014, the New York City legislature created laws that they touted made New York “friendlier [to charters] than almost any other city in the nation.” By increasing the per pupil allocation allotted to charters, eliminating salary minimums for teachers and other staff, and by requiring public schools to offer up unused space at a significant discount, many charter schools are given advantages that would seem to tip the scale in their favor. It would be hard to argue that these private or public charters are indeed true laboratories for innovation of best practices, given the tremendous advantages they have over public or even private schools.

The US Senate’s Levin–Coburn Report concluded that the financial crisis was the result of “high risk, complex financial products; undisclosed conflicts of interest; the failure of regulators, the credit rating agencies, and the market itself to rein in the excesses of Wall Street.”[5] Might a charter school bubble and resulting education crisis happen the same way? Might the leverage of a few powerful textbook and test printing companies create a system that is “too big to fail”? Might a pending educational crash similarly be the result of state and national legislatures failing to rein in the excesses of “Big Ed”, a conglomerate of test makers, book printers, and educational consultants profiting handsomely from the creation and amalgamation of more and more charter schools?

 

“Bundling”: Credit default swaps, collateralized debt obligations, and joining forces

One of the effects of deregulation was the creation of new ways to buy and sell groups of mortgages. One of the ways that the lenders protected themselves from economic trouble was by creating complex financial vehicles called credit default swaps (CDS). These CDSs could be created without collateral – that is, without proving that there was anything of value to be sold in case the investment went wrong – and thus they were at higher risk for a default. These junk bonds, accurately named because they were groups of mortgages that were without value (hence “junk”), were often quickly bundled with other similar loans and sold in large amounts to larger companies who were investing on the continued growth of the value of real estate in the United States.[6]

Just like the creation of new banks and lenders looks like the expansion of charter schools, so too does the creation of CDS look like the persistent closing and combining happening among charter schools. Time and again failing charter schools are merged into larger existing entities, in much the way Lehman Brothers sopped up smaller banks in order to bundle their mortgage assets.

The national White Hat Management group’s Cleveland experiment is an example of how deregulation and recombination make it difficult to monitor the effectiveness of individual schools. White Hat management ran into legal difficulties, accused of being beholden to particular publishers and vendors, rather than operating independently. Instead of amending their practices, they chose to sell major operations to a Pansophic education (founded by the same people who helped found the charter school system K12) which overnight became one of the largest charter school sponsors in the state of Ohio[7].

Other national vendors of charter schools, such as K12 and KIPP, have expanded through a combination of opening new branches and purchasing or absorbing existing charter schools. This makes it impossible to truly gage the effectiveness of the schools. In 2014, the law in Ohio called for charter schools to release their state report cards in their third year of existence. The average length of operation of a charter school in Ohio was 2.5 years. On average, schools chose to fold or divest rather than reveal their results. This has the effect of skewing charter school data to look better than it actually is. How? If, in any data set, you allow the option for the low-performers to opt out before being counted, the resulting data is inaccurate. This makes the data, which shows that charter schools tend to slightly underperform public schools on average, even more frightening.

Also in Ohio, the I Can charter school chain – started by former leaders of the well-regarded Breakthrough charter schools – has faced poor results and negative feedback from the public in Cleveland. The chain has additional schools in Akron and Canton and one in Indiana. In response to the poor results, the chain was turned over to Accel Charter School network. In their public statement on the transition, school officials explained that “running quality schools at the state’s $6,000 funding per student is too great a challenge and that they want to be with a larger network to save money.”[8]

“The teachers, the students and the parents will not notice a difference,” said I Can lawyer Jamie Callender, a former state representative for western Lake County.

It is hard to find these words reassuring, given that the transfer happened because of poor results.

 

Profit motive and predatory lending

Another contributing factor to the market crash and resulting recession was the large profit motive leading to predatory lending. Here is how it worked in the banking and mortgage business: mortgage lenders could bundle these mortgages (and the associated risks) and pass them on to banks and bank-replacements. They could – and did – adopt loose underwriting criteria (encouraged by regulators), and some developed aggressive lending practices.[9]

What might this look like in the education world? Much the same as it did in the mortgage world, it might look like charter schools targeting residents of urban areas and promising a new world of opportunities. It might look like glossy postcards and slick advertising campaigns, and promises of access to the internet at home for people who cannot afford it for themselves. It might look like promises of safety and order. It might look like colleges enticing students to borrow beyond their means in the hope of enhanced future earnings. 

It might look like dozens, maybe more than a hundred, for-profit colleges identified as having an unacceptable debt to earnings ratio. This ratio is “how much money typical program graduates are required to spend on student loan payments every year, and how much they earn in the job market two years after graduation.”[10] The administration of President Barack Obama labeled schools with unacceptably high ratios of debt as “profit mills”  – schools designed to create profit for themselves with little concern for their actual benefit to the students. A list of such programs was available at this Department of Education site at the time of publication of this article.

And there is big money to be made. One example of a well-paid executive in the charter school business is Ronald J. Packard, the CEO of K12 Inc. According to SourceWatch, a publication of the Center for Media and Democracy, Packard received compensation of over $19.48 million from 2009 to 20013, almost $4M a year. In 2013, he owned over 2 percent of K12, which had a market cap of around $1.25 billion in September 2013.

Education publication companies are already massive. Pearson, a textbook and testing company, has a market value over $4.5B. McGraw-Hill, according to Reuters, anticipated a valuation of nearly $5B when they offered an initial offering of stock in 2014. A third major educational publishing company, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, currently is worth about $1.5B. The Chief Executive Officers of these companies are making major deals that will determine how our students and our schools are taught and tested, and their ability to work a deal that is good for the company will be a primary determinant of their value to the company, and the source of their compensation. They are even working in many states, as well as at the federal level, to create mandatory testing. Thus the law will guarantee that their product is purchased. They could be moving from free market salespeople to the sole deliverers of a multi-billion-dollar government mandate.

There is significant economic pressure to deliver a contract, especially a federal contract with billions of dollars.

Well-compensated CEOs, and multi-billion dollar publishing companies are sources of concern. But the mere ability to earn a major profit is not evidence of wrongdoing.

Profit-mill colleges are a bigger concern, but these do not, necessarily, rise to the level of wrongdoing or fraud. They are merely concerns.

However, actual wrongdoing was recently uncovered at Ohio’s ECOT school. This for-profit online k-12 school was cited this September by the Ohio Department of Education for charging the state for higher attendance than the school actually could verify. Online schools are very different from traditional schools, as students do not have to physically show up at school in order to be counted as present. They merely have to log in from home. The problem at ECOT was that they claimed compensation for 9,000 more students than they could prove they had.[11] With about 6,500 students verifiably enrolled, ECOT received an estimated $60M in funding that they did not merit for the school year. This fraudulent claim on taxpayer dollars should be a major concern for taxpayers.

Fortunately, this fraud was caught through oversight, and public records claims would help reveal the same information. Efforts to undermine the transparency of the system could create a system where such schools could hide their efforts to defraud states and taxpayers. In fact, reducing oversight seems to invite poor behavior.

Lack of Oversight

A final important cause of the 2008 economic collapse was that deregulation had led to a serious lack of oversight, which meant that important signs of impending collapse were ignored, or were never seen at all. “In 2007-2010 the lack of transparency in the large market became a concern to regulators as it could pose a systemic risk.”[12]  The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission concluded that the financial crisis was avoidable and was caused by “widespread failures in financial regulation and supervision.”

In a revealing scene in the movie version of The Big Short, an investor approaches a woman he knows well and who works at the Securities Exchange Commission, which is tasked with overseeing the banking market. He learns she is still providing oversight to these companies, even while she is actually seeking a higher-paying job from them – whichever one will hire her. He asks if there are laws preventing her from moving from a regulatory agency directly into a position with a large bank she was supposed to be investigating. She shrugs. “Since we got our budget cut, we don’t investigate much.”

For now, it is unclear whether the level of oversight is up to the task of managing the level of attempted fraud and poor performance. In addition to the ECOT investigation in Ohio, the Charter School Commission also proved willing to take charters away from low-performing schools.[13] These are positive signs.

Despite these isolated reports of identified fraud, the national move has been to reduce the amount of oversight, rather than increase it. In fact, one legislator, Representative Thomas Massie of Kentucky, introduced a bill to end the Department of Education on December 31, 2018. And while this is likely just a symbolic gesture, the symbolism is not empty in a government with Congress and the White House under the control of one party. The House of Representatives recently scaled back implementation of oversight proposed under the new ESSA law.[14]  The new Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, made millions of dollars buying and selling charter school companies, and seems predisposed to favor charter schools over public schools. Just last week Bloomberg reported efforts by Betsy DeVos’ education department to take away protections for students taking out large loans to attend college, including the profit mills described above.

 

So these 5 risk factors, which set the stage for the economic meltdown of 2008, seem to exist in education today: deregulation, “bundling”, profit motive and predatory lending, and the potential for a lack of oversight. But what does that presage?

Just what does a crash in the educational system look like, exactly? It has never happened, as far as we know. And an education, unlike a dollar, is incredibly complex to track and measure. But we can speculate.

It could look like individual communities bilked out of hundreds of thousands of dollars, with state and federal dollars siphoned into the hands of a few corporations, who expand charter schools into additional markets, perhaps with the help of new federal laws. These communities whose public schools will be pitted against charter schools, already perpetually struggling to make ends meet, could find themselves over the next three years hit by a double-whammy of the loss of federal government support for individual programs and a federal hiring freeze, and the specter of funding a charter school system to run in direct competition with their own public system. Bankruptcy and receivership can mean the permanent fiscal end to a community, as inhabitants pack up and move away, or it can mean incorporation into a neighboring municipality.

The losses here, however, are perhaps as significant as they hard to measure.

On an individual scale the losses might be even worse than mere dollars and cents. Losing two or three years of a child’s education, as well-intentioned parents direct their children into profit-mill schools, can actually have a measurably devastating effect on a student. These schools often hire untrained and uncertificated teachers, or teachers who have been unable to find or keep work in other schools. We know that being assigned to an ineffective teacher for three consecutive years results in a 50% lower performance at the end of the three years than similar peers taught by the best teachers.[15]   We know that the lack of ties to a community that comes from answering to a private board rather than a public one can create a loss of identity for students and the community. What is the effect of schools that continually close, reorganize, and open again? How can they build continuity of relationships, standards and expectations, professional growth among teachers and administrators? What happens to students treated like widgets, or worse? What happens to the communities as these students grow up feeling a little less connected, a little less educated, a little less prepared for the future?

The housing bubble, and the resulting market crash, had devastating effects on people’s homes and lives. Billions of dollars were lost. The economy lost millions of jobs. People had to move from their homes. It was devastating. Money, however, can be earned back over time. The cost of thousands of lost educations, as corporations populate laboratory charter schools with our next generation, and those schools churn and change hands every couple of years, is incalculable.

 

[1] Sorkin, Andrew Ross. “Lehman Files for Bankruptcy; Merrill Is Sold.” Editorial. NY Times 25 Sept. 2008: n. pag. The New York Times. The New York Times, 14 Sept. 2008. Web. 16 Apr. 2017.

[2] https://www.forbes.com/2008/12/31/housing-bubble-crash-oped-cx_bb_0102bartlett.html

[3] https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2004/08/20040809-9.html

[4] http://www.miamiherald.com/news/politics-government/state-politics/article144515349.html

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Financial_crisis_of_2007%E2%80%932008

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Credit_default_swap

[7] http://www.ohio.com/news/break-news/white-hat-management-reportedly-selling-ohio-charter-school-operations-to-out-of-state-company-1.599723

[8] http://www.cleveland.com/metro/index.ssf/2017/03/i_can_charter_schools_turned_o.html

[9] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Financial_crisis_of_2007%E2%80%932008

[10] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/13/upshot/harvard-too-obamas-final-push-to-catch-predatory-colleges-is-revealing.html?_r=0

[11]http://www.cleveland.com/metro/index.ssf/2016/09/ecot_attendance_inflated_by_9000_students_audit_finds_60_million_in_state_funding_in_jeopardy.html

 [12] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Credit_default_swap

[13]http://www.cleveland.com/metro/index.ssf/2016/10/state_will_take_charter_schools_away_from_21_sponsors_slapped_with_poor_ratings.html

[14] http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2017/02/09/514148945/about-that-bill-abolishing-the-department-of-education

[15] http://thehiddencostsoftenure.com/stories/?prcss=display&id=266542

Summer Homework: The Debate is Over

-by Jack M. Jose

Every spring, conversations erupt in PTO meetings and team conferences about summer homework, and conflict blooms like forsythia bushes. It is a predictable pattern. Overworked parents, stressed students, concerned teachers join educational activists like Alfie Kohn[1] to make a strong and rational case: let children be children, especially in the summer.

The Heart Says …

How true this feels! There is no debate that summer holds a romantic place in the memories of our childhood, spending leisurely days catching crayfish in the creek, playing whiffle ball outside until the streetlights came on, and the evening giving way to long nights spent chasing fireflies. 90 days free from concerns about school, free from responsibilities, unencumbered by deadlines and chores. The description is so fanciful that it seems almost mythical, and our love for our children is so great that we can’t imagine a childhood bereft  of these idyllic landscapes.

Children use summer, and any length of available time, to create and to explore. With vast amounts of time and resources, they can build and learn in new ways. They can explore their bookshelves to find lost treasures of favorite books from the past, or stay up late in the evening building a new model or sorting cards acquired during the day.

The Data Says …

This is a lovely argument. One would surely be evil to suggest tampering with this particular Degas painting of summer! And for some students, perhaps as many as 30% of them residing in the top brackets of socio-economic status (SES) in the US, this might be their reality.

However, when it comes to the skill that is the building block of all learning – reading – summer homework is a necessary way to help our students achieve their greatest potential. It turns out that during that long summer away from the structure and routine of school instruction and work, students lose some of the skills they gained during the year. There is no dispute about summer slide – the fact that summer away from school results in a loss in reading skill, on average a month’s loss. In fact, through the average summer, this can create a “3-month gap in reading scores between middle- and low-income children.”[2] And the gap between low-income and high-income students is even more pronounced. This happens as middle-income children maintain the reading level they had in May, while low-income students slide and high-income students continue to grow.

Worse yet, at the high school level, we are often trying to offset differences and deficits that were years in the making. An oft-cited Johns Hopkins meta study on summer slide reveals that “prior to high school, the achievement gap by family SES traces substantially to unequal learning opportunities in children’s home and community environments,”[3] and shows that this gap can become the equivalent of several years’ gains in reading.

So “summers off” is a plan, but only if we are content to accept that a child’s parent’s income should determine that, at the end of the educational process, some children should be several grade levels ahead of others in reading skill. We believe that a strong education serves to limit our differences, and to provide each graduate with an equal opportunity for success. From there, a person’s effort, grit, and creativity should be the primary determinants of their success. Education, especially public education, should not content itself with perpetuating advantages provided by socio-economic status. Nor should we be in the business of reinforcing disadvantages among these groups.

Putting the Studies in Perspective

We understand that these studies are discussing averages, and trends over time, not describing individual families. The habits in a particular household are not determined by the parent’s income level. A studious low-income parent can help their child resist this trend, while a wealthy parent who provides no summer enrichment for their child can set them up for the type of slide that the studies suggest they will not experience. These are not absolute truths, but rather large-scale trends that we would ignore at our own peril.

The Johns Hopkins study cited earlier suggests that school might well be the answer to address this inequality. “[W]ith learning gains across social lines more nearly equal during the school year, the experience of schooling tends to offset the unequalizing press of children’s out-of-school learning environments.” So socio-economic differences at home can create large gaps in student achievement, and school can offset that gap by improving growth and academic performance for all students.

This position creates challenging conversations, especially in a diverse school like Gamble Montessori. Some of our students, 15% or so, have parents who are college educated professionals. More of our students’ parents are working-class, who despite their hard work and full employment qualify for the free or reduced-price lunch – our best measure of students living at or near the poverty line. Finally, a large percentage of our students live in poverty. Each spring, one or more of our college-educated, active, and involved parents who have time and inclination to join our PTO or Instructional Leadership Team, make the case against summer homework. They make it passionately, in much the same terms as it is made in the opening paragraphs of this essay. It is a compelling argument for a lot of reasons, but mostly because it is likely be true for their child. They are right to make this argument and to raise these important questions, and I welcome their involvement in the discussion.

It was in one of these meetings two years ago where I realized the nature of the argument against summer homework, but I could not find a gentle way to word it. Finally, I decided on asking simply this: “Are we suggesting that we should only give summer homework to the poor kids?” The answer is, of course, no.

So if we know that summer homework helps our poorest readers, and we know that it does no harm to our best readers, except for infringing upon the idyllic summer that we recall, how can we do summer homework well, so it meets the needs of all of our children and families? Here is our best answer.

Doing Summer Homework Right – For Everyone

With the help of the parents, our Instructional Leadership Team set out to right-size summer homework so that it would encourage and foster the growth of skills among all of our students, without eliminating the magic of summer for any of them. In doing so, we set some parameters, asking ourselves, how do we measure the work to determine whether it was just the right amount? The parameters we discuss divide the rest of the conversation below: the amount of time it took to complete, the number of subjects we covered, its value in the class for which it was assigned, whether it was new or review work, and its role in helping a child develop skills that relate to success beyond school such as managing their time and meeting deadlines.

imgresTime

To make the rest of the conversation possible, we had to first set limits on the amount of time a child should have to spend completing homework. More than one conscientious parent had shared with us the story of their child, who struggled with homework in general, spending many summer nights figuratively chained to their kitchen tables, crying at the weight of the work. This was no one’s idea of a summer well spent.

After some debate, we concluded, without basis in any scientific research, that 40 or so hours was right for an entire summer’s worth of school work. With June, July, and about half of August comprising summer, this meant about 50 minutes a day. This seemed a reasonable amount of time over the summer. Not intrusive, just a regular checking in to keep the skills sharp. Once this number was proposed, there was little further official discussion, though away from the table the question is still alive. We generally agreed that this felt right.

Subjects

The summer slide research cited above focuses on reading skills. A RAND corporation study cites the research of Cooper and Nye (1996) that determined “summer learning loss was greater, on average, in math than in reading,” and that this was more consistent across socio-economic lines than was the reading slide. It was reasonable to expect that reading was the skill that students were MOST likely to use in the summer. Therefore, a thoughtful summer homework program would involve all core subjects.

Again, we applied the cap of 40 hours total, which left 10 or 8 hours, depending on the grade of the student and whether foreign language work was included.

Connection to class / function

A common complaint among students, and a very valid one, was that their summer homework assignments languished on the teacher’s desk and had no connection to what they were covering in class. I knew, from discussions with teachers, that this was indeed the case. Papers would sit on their desks, or in briefcases or files, for weeks and weeks, checked in but not graded.

Apparently, both students and teachers saw summer homework as meaningless busywork!

Some teachers were magnifying the impression by not grading and returning the work promptly, other than to indicate whether it was complete. Worse yet, no connections were being made between the work they did over the summer and the work that was to be completed in class the first few weeks. Small wonder that year after year we struggled to get students to complete this work!

So at Gamble we added a stipulation that summer homework had to relate directly to instruction the first two weeks of the school year. This served the purpose of emphasizing its importance, while helping to explain why there was a deadline at all.

New vs Review Content

The term “summer slide” indicates the loss of existing knowledge. If this is what we were attempting to avoid through the administration of summer homework, then we had to assign work that was not new. The first year we reviewed our summer homework through this lens, the work seemed nearly impossible, especially in math. In addition to a short review of the previous year’s skills, much of the work in our existing summer homework covered topics (albeit in introductory form) that our students had not been exposed to in the classroom. Especially in math, this seemed counter-intuitive, and the math teachers at the table immediately agreed to change it. How can we justify grading students for doing quality work on problem types that they have never seen before?

We set the expectation moving forward that work was meant to be a review, and not for new content. Of course, students could read new books, and apply their grade-level reading skills to new texts, but in science and math, summer was not the time to try to add new skills without the aid of a teacher or guide.

Timing / Executive Function

Of course, we found that two types of students completely undermined our plans: the procrastinators, and the planners. One year, my last in the classroom, we handed the summer homework out a week prior to dismissal. One the last day, Lisa approached me, “Here, Mr. Jose.” She handed me a folder, inside were several stapled packets. “What’s this, Lisa?” I asked.

“My summer homework,” she said, matter-of-factly. “Math and science on the left, English and social studies on the right.”

“Umm,” I tried to buy time. “I, uh, don’t really have a place to put this right now, it’s due in, what, August? So,” I handed the folder back. “I’m going to have to ask you to hold on to this.” Lisa was a planner, and she was not about to let the few last days of packing up rooms and free time in some classes go by unused. She had completed her summer homework, she told me, mostly in the classrooms of other teachers, some of whom were showing movies or not providing work at the conclusion of final exams.

Our procrastinators are a different kind of problem. These are the students who plan on having the opportunity in the first weeks of school to complete all of their summer homework. I’ve worked in schools where those students were held in the auditorium or some classroom until they completed the work, or even suspended, not allowed to join their classmates for the opening days of instruction. While this may have provided a strong message that summer homework was required, it really undermined our message that what happens in the classrooms in the opening days is essential to a successful year, and sets those students up for failure. These same procrastinators could rightly argue in some cases, as explained above, that since the work was not graded anyway, they should not rightfully receive a deduction for completing it near the end of the first quarter. (This was part of the reason we instituted the expectation that teachers would utilize the work in a meaningful way in the first weeks of class. In this way, students were rewarded for doing the work, the significance of the class time was upheld, and students’ grades would be appropriately harmed not by an arbitrary grade given by a teacher, but by their own lack of having completed the requisite work.)

These students, both the planners and the procrastinators, lost the primary executive function practice that can be gained from summer homework. Done consistently, these periods of student work can not only erase summer slide, but can reinforce schedule-making and time-management skills among students. This is the hidden goal of summer homework, and the advantage to all students: practicing your ability to manage your time helps promote self-efficacy and leads to greater success far beyond the classroom.

One thing that every student gains from summer homework, if done well, are the skills that collectively are called executive functioning, some of which are: planning and organizing, managing time, strategizing, remembering details, making corrections, and knowing when – and who – to ask for help. The best summer homework structure that I have seen for this is one that we have not implemented at Gamble, but was required of students at Clark Montessori. The work was to be mailed in at certain intervals in the summer. The beauty of their plan was that it helped structure the summer, and developed executive function. It worked to the strengths of the planner, and to eliminate the weaknesses of the procrastinator.

While this obviously served to help the teacher manage the grading load, the effect on the students was even more pronounced. To make this work, students had to plan their summer a little more meticulously, figuring out when and how they were going to complete this work. Instead of cramming it in to one or two weeks just before school started, this plan required students to do the very thing that prevented summer slide: to do their work periodically and summon those same skills repeatedly over time. Students were required to not only complete the homework, but to manage a range of skills that would serve them in many other places in life.

In Conclusion / In Perspective

Summer homework is not a villain, stealing away summer from our children. Nor is it a panacea, for while it does save our students from regression and the achievement gap, it comes at a cost. Done correctly, summer homework is a meaningful review of work that bridges the gap between last year and next, while helping a student develop the management skills needed to not just pass a class, but to structure the more complex projects that lie ahead of them.

In his instructive work The Conditions of Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi points out that periods of intense engagement heighten the sense of value of the time around the event itself. Put another way, moments of structured time in the summer could, in fact, help make the rest of the time seem more precious in context. The flipside of the perfect summer, with the whole time idled away, is the moment of terror the day before school begins again, and the inability to remember what happened as the days melted into a blur of hours lost doing whatever came to mind. The summer best spent is with a mix of structured and unstructured time; time to do the things that need to be done, and time to discover what wants to be done. In fact, the summer well spent might look like a good spring break.

[1] http://www.alfiekohn.org/blogs/summer/

[2] http://www.cslpreads.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/CSLP-Summer-Reading-White-Paper-2015.pdf

[3] http://www.ewa.org/sites/main/files/file-attachments/summer_learning_gap-2.pdf

The Militarized Classroom

In early October I received a postcard-sized advertisement in my mail at school. This is common. Each week I receive a dozen or more postcard advertisements, full size color brochures, and even catalogs for anything you can imagine that can be marketed to schools. This one stood out. It was for a whiteboard on wheels, for classrooms.

It was bulletproof.

A bulletproof whiteboard on wheels. For classrooms.

The ad implied that with the right purchase, I could save lives. It implied that one of my responsibilities as a school leader was to prepare for the unthinkable, and that any resource not spent in that endeavor was wasted.

The other advertisements got tossed, unopened, into the recycling bin. This one got propped up against my desk clock. I would look at it and seethe. The rush of adrenaline was palpable each time it caught my eye. It took me weeks before I could figure out why that postcard made me so angry.

It said: you aren’t doing enough.

It said: you aren’t doing enough to protect children.

It said: violence at school is not an aberration. It is something for which you must prepare.

Worse yet, it pointed to misdirected priorities, and an abdication of our primary role as educators. We know that school shootings are most often perpetrated by students who attend the school. The message was that rather than find a way to connect each child to the community, we must instead accept that one or more of them are inevitably going to want to hurt us.

It said: we must plan to protect ourselves from our children.

I know the statistics[1]. How many children are shot in schools each year. How often the principal is among the targeted people. How the number of school shootings has increased in recent years, in coincidental tandem with an increase in gun sales, and in similar tandem with the use of standardized test scores to rate schools.

This postcard said: it is too hard to figure out why it is happening. Just accept it, and make sure you are ready when it happens to you. When it happens to you.

That there can be violence at school is not news to me. I know that there are real threats to our students and schools every day. I know my role, as a school leader, in making sure our students are safe. Most often this means being aware of individual conflicts and working to make sure that they do not boil over into physical conflict. Sometimes it means helping to break up a fight. And I know that sometimes the potential exists for a more dangerous incident.

Several years ago, Cincinnati Public Schools adopted a new protocol to respond to potential shooting incidents.  Called ALiCE, it is a specific set of steps to be taken in case of an event where someone enters the school intent on harming one or more people in the building. It has a reasonable premise that makes it an improvement over the old response model. In the ALiCE response, you can take steps to defend and protect yourself.

ALiCE is, of course, an acronym. It works like this:

A – Alert. When you realize an incident is occurring, you make an announcement to the whole school. You also alert authorities. A sturdy radio box was installed in my main office with a large red button. Pressing that red button quickly handles several tasks: it sets off an alarm in the school that indicates that the building is on lockdown, it immediately connects you, via radio, to emergency dispatch (and, curiously, to every other school that has one of these boxes), it disables the key card readers at the doors and locks the front door, making the building harder to access. It also sends an emergency text to my phone, and I suppose the phones of a CPS security staff. The red button is serious business. I’ve told my office staff they can never press the button without my order, unless I’ve been shot. (More on that later.)

L – Lockdown. Initiated by the red button, or by a PA announcement during drills or non-emergency lockdowns (such as when police notify me they are pursuing an armed suspect in the vicinity of the school), lockdown is a common drill. There is a series of steps that teachers should take in their classroom, mostly to make the room inaccessible and to make it seem empty, and thus not a target.

i – inform. [Note: not a typo. A trademark protection prevents the creators of this system from using all capital letters.] This is where the new system deviates from the old one. The old protocol was that after you were placed on lockdown, you waited under your desk until the voice of an authority figure announced you were safe. Now, with the use of cameras and the PA system, my responsibility is to try and locate the person intending to harm others, and share his location with the whole school. These give important information to teachers, and are also meant to disorient and frustrate the individual attacker.

C – counter. Another innovation in this system is the permission  to “counter” the individual. Instead of sitting passively in a ball under your table, you can act to protect yourself. A disoriented attacker is more likely to fire his gun inaccurately or to move on to an easier target.

E – evacuate. Using the information provided over the PA system, teachers now have the opportunity to decide whether it might be in their best interest to get their class out of the building and away to a safe place – in our case, St. Catherine’s. If they determine that the attacker will not see them, they can exit the building to go to our rally point.

CPS has assured teachers that they can now use their best judgement in an ALiCE event, and will be protected from prosecution if something happens during their evacuation.

This new twist on the protocol prompted an unusual conversation outside of school. Cora is a family friend in the fourth grade at St. Catherine’s, a school on the other side of the park behind our school. At a recent community event, she approached me excitedly. “Mr. Jose, your school is our safe place in case we have to get away from a shooter.”

“Hey, yes, I knew that. Your principal and I agree to that every year. Your school is our safe place.”

She was eager to tell me more, “And, you know what?”

“What?”

“If someone comes in to shoot us, we get to throw things at him!” Her enthusiasm was clear. In a child’s mind, this situation, and the chance at self-defense by throwing a book at an assailant, was a wonderful adventure. These are the sorts of flights of fancy a person’s mind naturally takes in daydreams, or heroic stories they tell themselves and each other while playing. A child tries on certain roles, and then can easily discard them – a police officer, a criminal, the President, a teacher, a superhero. But this self-defense training is an awful intrusion into the world of play for a child. The message that this particular act might not be play one day is damaging. You may have to throw a book to save your life; you might not be safe here; we don’t have bulletproof whiteboards.

This postcard said: it is too hard to figure out why it is happening. Just accept it, and make sure you are ready when it happens to you.

When it happens to you.

When the district adopted this ALiCE protocol as policy, principals were required to attend training to implement it. Designed by our district security and facilities staff, this half-day in a conference room felt a little like officer training. We were given the outlines of ALiCE, with a bevy of statistics. Dozens of students shot and killed in mass victim incidents in Columbine and elsewhere. (This was before Sandy Hook, another school name we should never have heard, but which now haunts our collective consciousness as unspeakable terror.) Individual students shot in dozens more incidents, which gained less publicity, throughout the school year. We learned that time and time again assailants were successful in getting into the school, which is a relatively soft target. We learned terms like “soft target” – which means a building that is not set up to actively defend against unwanted visitors. We called the aggressive student the “perp”, short for “perpetrator.” We learned about “choke points” for student egress, where students can’t all get out quickly and become easier to harm, spots to be avoided during evacuation. We learned that frequently these angry students had easy access to weapons, and they used them to inflict harm on one or more people. We learned that more than half the time, one of the targets was the principal.

I was half joking when I told my staff they could only press the red button if I had been shot. As part of the training, we learned that statistically it is more than just a possibility, in the event of a shooting at my school, that I will be a victim too, along with one or more of my students and staff. Along with the terminology, that night I carried home some of the machismo that was communicated through the training. “It’s okay,” I reassured my wife. “Almost seventy percent of the time when a principal is shot in one of these incidents, he lives.” It took several minutes for her to be able to speak to me, to ask me to vow that I would never joke about that again.

I knew that my actions in the moment could actually save lives, and I took that seriously. This was not news to me. I already believe my actions every day are saving lives, or at least changing them forever.

We were provided a slide show that talked about the history of the ALiCE concept, and the ways that the process might work at any given school. And then we were shown a video.

Slightly grainy black and white, this video was taken from up above the subjects, as if the camera was on the ceiling. Framed on the right side by a shelf of books, it must have been from a library security camera. The movement below a table was confusing at first, then I realized there was a crouching girl in a white sweatshirt, and I knew for sure that I was watching a surveillance video from one of these infamous school shooting incidents. When a male figure entered from the left, I did not need to see anymore. I could not see anymore. I stood, said to no one in particular “I can’t watch this. Get me when it’s over.” Then I walked out of the room.

On my way out, I heard our instructor announce that this was video from Columbine. He named the young man who had just entered the picture, a name too familiar to us now, and I heard the voice of a young woman pleading for her life. Then, thankfully, the door shut behind me, and I sat down on the floor in the hallway, and willed myself not to cry. I was sick to my stomach. Even now, more than three years later, I viscerally experience the intensity of that moment.

I did not need to be convinced of reality. I did not need to be persuaded to do all that I could to protect my students. I did not need to hear the pleas of frightened children, or hear the pop of semi-automatic gunfire in order to take my work seriously. I do not want to become callous to those sounds, or familiar with them. But I still cannot reconcile this strange contrary aspect of my job, the expanded role of protector of my students against immediate threat, and the chief nurturer and educator. Ten minutes later the group took a break and the other principals left the room, subdued.

We know that safety codes and frequent drills work to keep people safe in public buildings. The last death in a public school due to a fire was in the 1950s. Strict building codes have made fires less frequent, and largely eliminated blocked exits and broken signs and signals.  Schools are required to do safety drills continually for a variety of potential threats. Recent changes in the expectations in the state of Ohio have added emergency drills, for the potential of a shooter, to the bevy of fire and tornado drills. In total, we are required to do 14 such safety drills a year – one fire drill each of the 8 months we are in school, one tornado drill each of the three months we are in school during tornado season, and three safety / ALiCE drills.[2]

Teachers take these drills seriously. The questions I am asked come from a desire to understand the policy fully and to implement it effectively. We work to take the drill as a full “dress rehearsal” – if we are to evacuate silently, we do. If we are to crouch or sit, we do, even if just briefly.

I know that these ALiCE drills traumatize my students and my teachers. Several years ago, at a team leader meeting, one teacher was nearly in tears as she sought answers to a question about her windows. To reduce theft, first floor windows were built to only open enough to let air in, but not a person. Likewise, in the event of an emergency, a person could not get out. Her students were going to have questions, and she wanted to get the answers right.

A year earlier, in our old building, an officer knocked loudly on the door of a classroom and identified himself as a school officer. With the teacher’s permission, a student let him in. “Bang!” he yelled. “You are all dead. You can never let anyone in until the all clear has sounded.” Some students laughed. Others jumped and crouched harder in place.

 

Shortly thereafter, when the all-clear had been announced, we called home to have a parent pick up the student who opened the door. She was so distressed that she could not stay in school the rest of the day. Our students understand the nature of violence, and some of them have seen it play out in their lives. Some of them walk home to houses on streets that my teachers suggest are too dangerous to drive down.

This year, Krista related the hard questions her students asked her as they debriefed the drill.

“Why can’t we let someone in?”

The answer? “It might be a hostage situation.”

“What happens if one of us gets shot?”

“I won’t leave you.”

I understand that fires and tornadoes happen. I understand that conflict happens in school.

I can’t understand why shootings occur in school.

Following the devastating shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary school, where 26 students and staff were shot and killed, several parents of the victims created Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing school violence. While they acknowledge that larger solutions need to be taken societally, their approach has been school-based. The emphasis is on providing support for every student, and being aware of the signs of social isolation and aggressive behavior, is the right approach to helping solve the problem. Their awareness video, entitled “Know The Signs”, is a powerful reminder to us to make sure we are vigilant and attentive to the needs of every student. We are inclined, in reviewing the video, to see a perpetrator. But what we see is a child.

Intentionally building community among students, whether in very large high schools or in small elementary schools, is the best way to make sure no student feels so angry and left out that he must make such a dramatic statement.

How do we do that?

  1. Build community into the school. Using specific classes such as advisory, or a team-based approach to schools, allows teachers to intentionally develop a relationship with individual students;
  2. Strengthen access to mental health support. Through hiring counselors and partnerships with mental health agencies students in crisis can be given the individual support they need to get through an individual incident or a long-term mental health concern;
  3. Teach grit, and that it gets better. Let students know that their current personal, academic, and interpersonal concerns are not world-ending. Instead they are temporary, and they have solutions.
  4. Teach empathy. Give everyone the skills and the responsibility to look out for one another. Let them know who to talk to if they are worried about themselves, or if they are worried about someone else.
  5. Offer multiple definitions of “success” in education. Celebrate athletes, artists, academics, and advocacy. This allows for students to be part of the community of the school without having to pursue one or two narrow definitions of what it means to fit in.

In a society where children have nearly unlimited access to every imaginable media, from supportive videos reassuring them that “it gets better,” to destructive videos idolizing and rating school shooters, we cannot put up a barrier to keep problems out. We must instead equip students with the skills and the support to make wise decisions and to look out for one another. The answer is not bulletproof whiteboards. The answer is not ALiCE. These are band-aids as a response to needed heart surgery.

 

 

[1] And here are some of them: https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/promise/pages/17/attachments/original/1445441287/Gun_Facts.pdf?1445441287

[2] https://saferschools.ohio.gov/sites/default/files/HB178-TB15-001%20-%20Flow%20Chart%20-%20final.pdf

Are You Handing Out Hidden Rewards?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– special status or privileges

– fame / recognition among adults and students

– individual attention

– avoidance of work

 

Special status or privileges:

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

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

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

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

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

 

Recognition:

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

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

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

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

 

Individual attention:

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

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

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

 

Avoidance of work:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Conversational Capacity: Learning How to Lead

by Krista Taylor & Jack M. Jose

Sometimes the right thing comes along at just the right time. Other times, you have to wait for it. My search for the right leadership tool was one of those “wait for it” times.

In the fall of 2012, I took on my first real leadership role – special education department chair. I was nervous about it, unsure if I was really ready. But, I reasoned, perhaps like parenting, it’s the kind of thing that you can’t ever really be ready for until you are in the midst of it.

It didn’t take long before I made my first giant mistake. I was leading a department meeting that had already extended beyond the provided time, and I was explaining, for what felt like the umpteenth time, the administrative directive concerning how to prepare test administrators for giving accommodated tests. It was an unpopular initiative, as it required additional work. As I spoke, a few people were off-task, and others had already begun packing up their materials. I felt frustrated and angry. In the midst of all this, one of my colleagues commented, “I think what we have been doing is just fine. I think we should just continue doing that.” Instead of listening and responding appropriately, I snapped back, and I quote, “It actually doesn’t really matter what you think.”

Ouch. The meeting came to a screeching halt, and we adjourned in discomfort.

I immediately knew I was wrong, and I did the only two things I knew to do to try and fix things. I called Caroline to apologize, (She didn’t answer, so I had to leave a voice message) and I also sought out Jack to tell him exactly what I had done and to acknowledge my error.

Things moved on. We had more meetings, but I never was able to correct things with Caroline. Our relationship remained haunted by this conflict.

After this incident, I began actively seeking leadership mentoring. What I discovered was that there is a dearth of people who feel comfortable with this. Jack often says that the entirety of his induction and training into the principal-ship was a handshake and a hearty, “Welcome Aboard.” When I off-handedly asked him for leadership support, he just looked at me as if I was speaking some foreign tongue.

I next asked one of the academic coaches assigned to our building, who also happened to be a friend of mine. Her response shocked me. She laughed and said, “Krista, you are a natural leader. There is nothing that I can teach you.”

What?! How was I supposed to learn if no one would teach me?!

I settled on a teacher nearing retirement, who had been in a Team Leader role for a number of years. She didn’t actually know that she was serving as my mentor because I had lost the courage to keep asking for this, but I intentionally watched her and tried to learn from her.

So I watched, and I learned, and I stumbled, and I grew along the way.

I knew I was improving, but I also felt like there was something missing – my mistakes always seemed to be made in the same vein, but I couldn’t quite articulate what it was that was happening. I just knew I wasn’t satisfied.

Then early in this school year, (a mere five years after my initial foray into leadership), Jack saw a presentation by Craig Weber, author of Conversational Capacity,

He said this about it:

Craig’s work related to much of what is explored in Kegan’s Immunity to Change. This is challenging work, where the individual reader or participant seeks to reveal the hidden motivators and obstacles that prevents one from making changes in oneself. It aligns with a key leadership theory in the Harvard Urban School Leaders program: to change a school or other organization you must first change yourself. You must become the leader it needs. Similarly, Craig argues that if you want to have productive conversations, you must read the dynamics of the conversation and change your actions. Doing this creates the most insightful dialogue that exposes the most important information and encourages the right set of possible next steps.

Jack was so impacted by this presentation that he asked if I would like to read the book with him.

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes! Not only did the title promise to help me improve team functionality during high-stress situations, but I also figured that if Jack and I were reading this together, I could trick him into serving as my leadership mentor without him realizing it. As enthusiastic as I was, I didn’t quite know what I was getting myself into.

Turns out that Conversational Capacity was both the challenge and the answer that I had been seeking for so long. Craig cites Robert Kegan in defining the role of leaders. “Leadership is about shaping the nature of the discourse.”[1] (29)

“Shaping the nature of the discourse” – this was what I needed to learn to do better.

Craig’s premise is that the critical factor for teams is not the much touted establishment of trust and respect, rather it is the development of “conversational capacity” – or as he describes it, “the ability to have open, balanced, nondefensive dialogue about tough subjects and in challenging circumstances.” (15) He goes on to describe moments in which this is happening as the conversational “sweet spot” – that place in a conversation or meeting where candor and curiosity are in balance. But he also cautions that while this sounds deceptively simple, our human nature tends to get in the way of our ability to remain in this balanced place when under pressure or when discussing challenging issues. “While it’s easy to remain balanced when talking about routine and comfortable issues, when a difficult subject hits the table, our tendency is to move out of the sweet spot toward the extreme ends of the behavioral spectrum. Some people shut down. Others heat up.” (15)

After having read only the first chapter, I understood several things about this work:

  • It was serendipitous that Jack and I were reading this together because we represent both ends of Craig’s spectrum. When things get challenging, Jack tends to “shut down” while I “heat up.”
    I tend to “heat up” while Jack “shuts down

    This serves neither of us well.

  • Getting pulled out of the conversational sweet spot was exactly what I had been struggling with as a leader, and what I hadn’t had words to describe.
  • This was going to be hard. As Craig says, the development of conversational capacity is not “a simple gimmick or quick fix … if we want to improve our teams and organizations, we have to improve ourselves.” (3)

Jack experienced a similarly immediate and powerful response to the concepts in this book.

 Craig’s work immediately resonated with me. Perhaps this was because Craig admits that he, too, is a “minimizer” – one who works to keep everyone’s feelings intact, and seek out solutions that felt like an emotional middle ground.

It was a relief to hear someone else admit that. Years before, I was in a leadership training program at Ohio State University, and everyone in the group completed a leadership style inventory. We were then directed to stand in the part of the room that corresponded to our results. I found myself essentially alone in one corner of the room. Diagonal from me were a group of administrators whose answers revealed them to be decisive winners of conflict. Decision-makers. Men and women of confidence, and apparently full of correct answers. In my corner, almost entirely alone, a consensus-builder who believed in empowering professional educators to make key decisions.

Although Jack has a tendency to shut down, and I have a tendency to heat up, this is often a non-issue for both of us. Craig notes that it is easy to stay in the sweet spot when discussing routine problems – challenges that we know how to work through. However, we can readily get pulled out of the sweet spot when we are facing situations for which we don’t have easy answers.

Craig argues that these stressors trigger our fight or flight reflexes, or in his language, our urge to “win” (heat up) or to “minimize,” (shut down) and that both of these responses pull teams out of the sweet spot and lead to unproductive conversations. It is important to note that the goal here is productive conversations, not non-conflictual ones. In fact, being in the sweet spot is likely to involve what Craig describes as productive conflict – “productive conflict and a willingness to disagree, publicly and rigorously, need to be an integral part of a board’s operating culture.” (19)

Of course, not all conflict is productive. The conflict that occurred in the meeting where I was explaining testing protocol was conflictual, but it was far from productive. When I perceived that my authority was being threatened, I went straight to “win” behaviors, and I went there hard and fast. In doing so, I damaged my relationships, but more importantly, that testing initiative never did get enacted. As a team, we never were able to explore how to make our practice in this area more functional.

Minimizing behaviors can be equally unproductive. Jack’s explanation demonstrates what can happen when minimization of issues occurs.

The simplest way to phrase it misses the point. Some say that I just “want to be liked”, and that drives me to be unwilling to make decisions, especially substantive ones. But it is more complex than that. If people are invested in opposing viewpoints, say about placing teachers in certain classrooms, or a response to a certain misbehavior, I believe that they are using their best judgment. I believe they have put together the best argument that they can. I worry: if they “lose,” will they be less invested in the whole project? What else will be lost in terms of their morale and self-confidence? Whether they like me or not is secondary to my concern as to whether they will still be invested in the school.

 However, I know that my “minimize” behavior is based on an oversimplification all its own. Making an argument and having a stronger or more persuasive case prevail is not likely to cause someone to choose a new career. That does not make sense in a rational mind.

Minimization emphasizes caution over candor and runs the risk of having important issues not discussed in order to maintain comfort. “When our need to play it safe overwhelms our clear and noble intentions, we sacrifice progress and effectiveness for comfort and safety.” (39) Jack’s visceral response to this quotation: So. Many. Examples. And they all hurt someone. Ugh.

Conversely, when, as Craig describes it, “we are hijacked by our need to win, … our mind shuts and our mouth opens, and we grow increasingly arrogant and argumentative.” (45) Yuck. That felt so uncomfortably familiar to me.

It is said that “knowing is half the battle,” but I’m not convinced. I think knowing might only be about one-fourth of the battle.

After reading chapters one and two of Conversational Capacity, I knew what my battle was, but I didn’t yet know how to win it. And, of course, for me, the answer was quite the opposite of “winning.”

Jack was similarly drawn in.

Conversational Capacity became a page-turner for me. I wanted to figure out how to improve the conversations in the building. I was committed to creating a culture in the school that matched the one we were trying to create in the classroom. I wanted to make it okay for teachers to help each other get better at what they do. The fact that Krista texted me two days later and announced that “all the answers to everything” were in the book, of course, prompted me to continue.

Both Jack and I were eager to engage in the work of finding the sweet spot. To this end, Craig notes that no one universally operates on one side of the spectrum.

Everyone demonstrates both “win” and “minimize” tendencies; however it is helpful to determine where one generally falls along this continuum and what is one’s default mode when things become challenging. Recognizing this helps us understand what behaviors to watch out for and what strategies to implement to help us move away from the ends of the spectrum and toward the central sweet spot – that place where an equilibrium exists between candor and curiosity and the “dialogue is open, balanced, and nondefensive.” (15)

Craig notes that in order to increase conversational capacity and be able to stay in the sweet spot more consistently, we must balance the strengths of our natural tendencies with the intentional cultivation of checks on this tendency. I have mentally relived that terrible moment from that department meeting over and over again. I know I could have done it better, but what was the right way?

How could I move myself away from “win” and toward the discipline of conversational capacity?  How could Jack move away from “minimize” and toward that same discipline? I was grateful that he was going through this process with me, and that he too, was taking a critical look at his foibles.

Together, we explored the list of identified “win” and “minimize” behaviors that Craig describes, and noted those that we each typically engage in. We were both surprised to find that we demonstrate many behaviors from our “non-default” side of the spectrum. While it was important to be aware of these as well as our natural tendencies, the focus of our change efforts would revolve around the behaviors to which we were most habituated. For me that was those in the win column, and for Jack it was the behaviors that fell in the minimize column.

It did not feel at all good to admit that I regularly exhibit the following “win” behaviors:

  • State positions as fact
  • Dismiss alternate views and perspectives
  • Solicit support
  • Fail to inquire into alternate points of view
  • Interrupt others
  • Use dismissive body language

Jack experienced similar humility when identifying the “minimize” behaviors to which he is most prone:

  • Cover up your views, ideas, information, or concerns
  • Ease in – water down your concerns to make them more palatable
  • Avoid issues
  • Make excuses to let people off the hook
  • Use email or voicemail to express concerns
  • Feign agreement or support

So, what next? How could we both do better?

Craig addresses the method for improvement in a brilliantly simple manner. He says that people demonstrating a minimizing perspective exhibit low candor — or the willingness to speak forthrightly in the face of challenge. Those demonstrating a winning perspective exhibit low curiosity – or the willingness to actively seek out views that are different from one’s own.

To combat a minimizing perspective, one needs to exhibit greater candor, and to combat a winning perspective, one needs to exhibit greater curiosity. Craig delineates just two critical skills to cultivate in each area.

Candor Curiosity
1. State a clear position 1. Test an existing view

 

2. Explain the thinking behind a position 2. Intentionally inquire about differing perspectives

Easy, right?

Well, not exactly.

As soon as I read this, I knew the answer to my concerns about my leadership. I had to demonstrate greater curiosity, and I had to reign in some of my candor to provide space for that. And, of course, for Jack the opposite was true. He had to fight against his tendency to minimize and push himself to exhibit greater candor.

For about a month, I reminded myself of this before every meeting I walked into.

No change.

My Conversational Capacity checklist

I invariably found that after the first few minutes, I lost sight of my goal and promptly returned to my old patterns of behavior. I was so frustrated with myself that I designed this visual to help me remember. I even went so far as to embed scripted language prompts into my chart.

I’ll be honest. It didn’t help much. I was successful with dialing back my usual level of candor, but I really continued to struggle with increasing the curiosity that would allow me to truly shift.

I had the opposite problem. I often withheld my opinion or position on a matter. I did this for a variety of reasons, mostly hinging on the idea that I had positional authority over the teachers engaged in the conversation. I worried that stating a position early on would bias the discussion, and cause dissent to remain unexpressed. My goal was noble: I wanted to hear dissenting views. The result was not noble. Too often, I exerted my opinion near the end of a conversation or discussion, and this had the effect of summarizing or “deciding” the matter.

We found reassurance in Craig’s words at the end of the book, “If we’re not making a mistake, it’s a mistake. When we fall back into our old habits, we should say yes to the mess, see what we can learn, and move on. We shouldn’t beat ourselves up over our minimize and win tendencies. Recognize that they’re a part of us, that they often conflict with other intentions, and that we have to keep an eye on them. It’s also important to adopt a constructive learning-oriented mindset by taking note of our strengths and not just bemoaning our weaknesses. A conversation I had with an executive in Seattle provides a case in point, ‘My win tendency is too strong,’ he told me. ‘Don’t be overly hard on yourself,’ I suggested. ‘Try reframing it this way: you’re exceptionally good with the candor skills. Your goal now is to put in enough practice so you’re just as proficient with the curiosity skills.’” (179)

Okay, so I’m “exceptionally good with the candor skills.” However, I need to keep working at building curiosity.

In a meeting just last week, I think I did it. I think I found balance and stayed in the conversational sweet spot. Jack was proposing that we significantly move up a deadline for the completion of a huge, school-wide task. In typical fashion, I responded with candor, stating my clear position that it was too much, too fast, and then explaining the reasoning behind my thinking.

But then I heard myself say, “Now tell me what your thoughts are.” There it was — an expression of inquiry!

Jack shared his position, and then, taking both perspectives into consideration, the committee was able to develop a plan for moving forward that embedded some extra time and seemed feasible.

Craig notes that the whole group benefits when any member improves his or her conversational capacity. I suspect that exhibiting the skills of inquiry is easier for me in the face of Jack’s increased candor.

Here are his thoughts about his transformation in progress:

Recently I have adopted Craig’s advice, stating my position clearly at the beginning, but inviting dissenting views. By putting my ideas out early in the conversation, I cannot serve as the final decider. Also, by inviting dissent, I clearly make it okay to provide counter arguments. It turns out that the teachers are more than willing to disagree with me!

Even these small shifts feel great. Now let’s see if we can keep doing it the next time. Or maybe the time after that.

Personal change is hard. It’s so much easier to keep doing what we’ve always done. Conversational Capacity is a powerful book that pushes us beyond our comfort zones into a higher level of functioning. I cannot say it better than Craig does himself, “Be warned, this book will present you with a choice … will we let our experience reinforce the primal, self-centered aspects of our nature, or the nobler, more purpose-driven aspects of our humanity? Will we grow more candid or more cautious? More courageous or more timid? More curious or more critical? More humble or more arrogant? Far too many people opt for the lower, easier, less rigorous route. This book will encourage you to take the higher, more adventurous road – the road less traveled.” (9)

Learn more about Craig’s work here.

[1] Weber, Craig. Conversational Capacity: The Secret to Building Successful Teams That Perform When the Pressure Is on. New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2013. Print.

 

Angels and Superheroes Reader Survey

Friends, Angels, and Superheroes, we are very thankful for your readership. For more than a year, and over 60 posts, we have provided research, personal stories, insights, and perspective on a broad range of educational topics. Some of you have patiently tolerated our musings, while others have eagerly read articles and passed them on to your friends. In one case, you have passed an article on to some 360,000+ other readers!

We are inspired by each of you. Krista once said that it was ridiculous for one of us to be named “Educator of the Year” because none of us are angels or superheroes. Instead, we are all hard-working, passionate individuals. Many of us spend our extra time and spare cash improving our school and the lives of those who enter it. It takes all of us.

So we want to hear from you. Please take 5 minutes (or less, depending on the length of comments you choose to make) to answer the questions at the link below. This will help us make Angels and Superheroes even better. Next week we return with a look at how to make conversations more productive in every setting, discussing the work of our friend Craig Weber, author of Conversational Capacity.

Please select this Survey link.

Or copy and paste this address into your browser:  https://goo.gl/forms/saL8X8dCT4yjigQW2

Thank you,

Jack and Krista

Growth Mindset: Creating A Culture of Courage

 – By Krista Taylor

“For me, the United Leaders way of thinking has made me see the world in a new light. I’m much more gritty than before and much more willing to be brave and courageous and to try new things.” – Adalira

This was a student’s response to the prompt, “How do the ideas of grit and growth mindset impact you?” I expected to hear words about perseverance, grit, and optimism. References to courage and bravery surprised me.

Courage. And bravery.

Courage and bravery don’t always look like martyrs facing down veritable lions or tigers. Sometimes they look like an adolescent working on a math problem.

When Shauna arrived at Gamble, two and a half years ago, it was hard for us to believe that she had not already been identified with a learning disability. Her educational needs were profound, and her faith in herself had been severely impacted by years of academic difficulty. Math was the most challenging subject for her, and she often coped with this by putting her head down, refusing to do work, demonstrating resistance to instruction, and sometimes even crying in class.

It is hard, perhaps impossible, for a student to learn when she is this disengaged.

But a few weeks ago, during my Algebra class, I overheard Shauna say something that once would have seemed nearly miraculous. She was working on a math problem with a peer when I heard her say the words: “No, I don’t think that’s right. Look here in the notes. It says we have to do it like this. I think the right answer is like this,”

Getting to witness a student’s blossoming self-confidence is an extraordinary event – one deeply rooted in the concepts of grit and growth mindset – and it doesn’t happen overnight.

Gamble was first introduced to the book Mindset, Carol Dweck’s seminal work on growth mindset, through a mini-PD that Jack gave at a staff meeting in 2011.

Dweck’s research has been so rapidly and widely embraced by the education community that it seems silly now, just six years after that training, to speak of it as revolutionary. But when Mindset was published in 2007, it was a radical concept.

Dweck proposes the notion that intelligence is not fixed. Rather, she argues that intelligence can be increased through the creation of new neural pathways in the brain. These neural pathways are generated through repeated practice, or perseverance, in a task.

Dweck refers to this shift in cognitive understanding as “the power of yet” as opposed to “the tyranny of now.”[1] Learning and development, she argues, are not a binary system. It isn’t an “I can” versus an “I can’t” proposition. Rather it is an ever-evolving continuum, and we need to shift our language to reflect what one is learning to do, or what one can “not yet” do.

Clearly, having a growth mindset is of value to all learners, so how can teachers and parents help to develop this attribute in children? Dweck says that the key for developing a growth mindset is to focus on effort, use of strategies, and progress. This is a shift from the traditional focus on achievement or on “being smart,” which Dweck claims leads to the development of what she calls “a fixed mindset” – the notion of an unchangeable level of cognitive ability.

Dweck argues quite convincingly, providing data to support her claim, that students who are regularly fed either the fixed mindset language of “being just not good at that” or, conversely, that of “being so good at that,” develop a near-paralyzing fear of failure. In the binary system of can and can’t do, when faced with a challenge, or when confronting error, students who have a fixed mindset tend to do one of three things – avoid the task, compare themselves to someone who has performed worse than themselves, or cheat. These students have been taught that their success stems directly from their innate intelligence or a lack thereof.

It is easy to accept that implying to children that they simply aren’t good at something is problematic. It is more challenging to understand that it is equally damaging to buoy self-esteem by noting mental acuity.

“You’re so smart,” may sound like positive reinforcement, but unfortunately, this belief has a dark shadow correlate. The covert message is that if success is due to natural intelligence, then any lack of success must be due to a lack of intelligence. And if intelligence is intrinsic, so too must be lack of intelligence. So every time a well-meaning teacher, parent, or coach praises a child for being smart, or talented, or athletic, they are unwittingly reinforcing the belief that these “gifts” are outside of the child’s control, and that therefore, when the child next experiences failure, that too is out of his or her control. If success and failure are outside of a child’s locus of control, then there is no reason to exert effort – either success comes easily, or one might as well not even try. For those with a fixed mindset, failure is a debilitating event.

However, students who demonstrate a “growth mindset” – an understanding that their success is dependent on their effort, and that learning and skill development are the reward for their investment of time and energy– prove just that. These students are functioning with a mentality of “I can’t do it yet,” not “I can’t do it at all.” These students are able to persevere through challenge without giving up, and as a result their performance improves. This is what leads to that blossoming self-confidence.

A few weeks ago, Shauna was working with a partner on a math assignment. The two were deeply and joyfully engaged in the task at hand – working with the slope-intercept form of linear equations. It was on this day that I was privileged to overhear Shauna’s words, “No, I don’t think that’s right. Look here in the notes, it says we have to do it like this. I think the right answer is like this.”

No one walking into my classroom would have seen anything particularly noteworthy, but that’s because they would only see the snapshot of that particular day, and not the movie reel of the last few years.

The important piece here is not whether or not Shauna was correct in her mathematical thinking; the important piece is that she exhibited the self-confidence to challenge a peer’s thinking, indicate a replacement solution, and provide reasoning to support her answer.

This was an act of courage and bravery.

And I believe it was a direct result of a focus on growth mindset in the classroom.

growth mindset language

Much of Dweck’s insight focuses on language choices, and there are many options available on the internet of student-friendly versions of replacement language used for encouraging a growth mindset. Here is the version my team uses.

When we first introduced this concept, the students snickered; we snickered. It seemed strange and stilted to say things like, “I’m going to train my brain,” or “Mistakes help me improve,” but we were surprised by how readily students embraced this shift. It has now become completely commonplace to hear students use these phrases to encourage themselves or others. Just the other day, I heard Dalya, who was struggling to grasp point-slope formula, mutter under her breath, “This is hard. I don’t get this.” Moments later, I watched her take a deep breath, and quietly say to herself, “This may take some time and effort.” I witnessed her emerging courage and bravery– the creation of growth mindset in action.

If Dweck’s work revolutionized our understanding of learning, Angela Duckworth’s related philosophy on the importance of “grit,” shared via a TED talk in 2013[2] served as a rapid-propulsion catalyst for getting these paired concepts into the public eye.

Duckworth’s research indicated that what she dubbed “grit” – a combination of perseverance and passion – is the number one indicator of future success. This flew in the face of the commonly understood importance of intelligence and talent, and thus, fit neatly hand-in-glove with Dweck’s work on growth mindset.

The concept of “grit” exploded in education circles and rapidly became a mandatory buzzword. It stands to reason that teachers would naturally embrace this concept. The ability to cultivate student perseverance as a way to increase success provides hope for struggling students, and a construct through which we can understand the importance of increasing engagement and stamina in children.

Duckworth directly credits Dweck with having the best insight into how teachers can instill growth mindset, and by extension, grit, in their students.

In Mindset, Dweck outlines three strategies commonly implemented by students with a growth mindset when they approach a challenging task – essentially helping them to develop Duckworth’s concept of “grit.”

  • Keep trying (sustained effort)
  • Attempt a new strategy
  • Ask for help

But the ultimate question remains – how can teachers instruct and reinforce these practices? And how can we avoid inadvertently setting students up for more failure and frustration by implying that they just simply have to “try harder?”

To answer that, I think there is a third critical piece of research – The infamous marshmallow study.

This study, conducted in the late 1960s and early 1970s by Walter Mischel at Stanford University, examined the correlation between a child’s ability to delay gratification and better long-term life outcomes. In the study, young children were presented with a marshmallow (or a cookie or pretzel) and told that if they waited and didn’t eat the marshmallow, they would ultimately be given two marshmallows. The results indicated a strong relationship between the ability to delay gratification (not eat the marshmallow) and higher SAT scores, greater academic achievement, and lower BMI indexes in adulthood.[3]

Since self-control seems to be an underpinning factor in both delaying gratification and persevering through challenge, Duckworth’s grit work is arguably related to Mischel’s marshmallow study. However, it is a replication and extension of Mischel’s experiment that I think reveals the key missing piece. (I first learned of this new research through this article written by my friend and high school classmate, Andrew Sokatch.)

In 2012, researchers at the University of Rochester recreated the marshmallow study with an additional variable – trust.[4] This version of the study included two sets of tests. Children were first given a box of used crayons and told that if they could wait to begin coloring, these crayons would be replaced with a box of brand-new crayons. After the required time length, half of the children who waited were given the promised new crayons, and half of the children were told that a mistake had been made and no new crayons existed. Then, like the original study, children were provided a marshmallow and told that if they could wait, they would be given two. The children who had been rewarded with the new crayons were able to wait a significantly longer period of time to earn the second marshmallow than were the children who had waited on new crayons, only to receive nothing.

I believe that this provides important insight into the work of Dweck and Duckworth. We know that poverty is a critical factor in the academic challenges that many students face. We know that poverty often brings with it instability and inconsistency –the archenemies of trust. If we accept that the development of grit and a growth mindset are tremendous indicators of success, and we connect that to an ability to exert self-control, then we can readily see the direct connection in a student’s ability to trust in the environment, and in the adults in charge of that environment, with a student’s ability to succeed. And we then know where it is we have to begin. With trust.

When I began teaching growth mindset about five years ago, I hoped that concepts like “perseverance,” “strong-mindedness,” and “asking for help” would become common parlance among my students. But I never would have guessed that courage and bravery would be part of that. Grit and growth mindset are avenues to success, but what I didn’t yet understand when I introduced this idea was that before students can even begin down this path, they have to be able risk error. They have to be able to trust.

Learning is a risky endeavor. Learning requires mistakes – sometimes public ones.   To learn, we must have courage, and we must be brave. For many students, it is much easier to avoid potential failure, to hide, to give up – the antithesis of grit — than it is to take the risk of making a mistake in order to learn and grow, in order to succeed.

Learning is an act of courage. My students remind me of this every day:

“Growth mindset has affected me strongly. I have struggled with many things that no person my age should go through. By powering through it, it has changed me in ways I didn’t know I could change. I have changed into a better person, and a very strong-minded one.” – Caden

“Grit means to keep trying – like in math we are knowledgeable to answer the questions given, and we all encourage each other to do better. I get gritty in language arts and in math because all of the hard problem in math and all the essays we have to do, but as a result, it pushes me farther, and I am determined to be successful because of my teachers. My teachers show us step by step to make us understand, and when I learn something new, I get excited and want to do more. [It] gave me a lot of courage to change and do new things.” — Dahlia

As teachers, our very first task it to get our students to trust us. And the more unstable and inconsistent students’ previous experiences have been, the more difficult it will be to establish trust. There is no substitute, and there are no shortcuts. The only way to establish trust is to uphold your promises, create a safe space, and to keep showing up again and again and again. Students have to believe that you’ll follow through on what you say, that mistakes are okay (and even encouraged), and that you will be there for them on both the good and the bad days.

Trust is a bit of a magic elixir, for once students trust, they can exhibit courage and be brave. They can risk making mistakes. They can face challenges and not lose faith – the essence of grit.

Shauna’s transformation into a “gritty” student did not occur overnight, and it would be inaccurate to say that it is complete, but it is remarkable. Over the course of two years, and through tremendous amounts of coaxing, modification of assignments, and a focus on growth mindset, Shauna has been able to conquer her fear of failure in math – to have courage and to be brave. This, in turn, has allowed her to learn. It would be inaccurate to tell you that she has become a brilliant math student. She remains the most challenged learner in my math classroom, and she still has days where she simply gives up, but these are becoming fewer and farther between. More often than not, she is one of the students with their hand raised ready to answer a question, and sometimes now, she is the student begging to be able to show the class how to work through a given problem.

When students can be brave and risk failure long enough to witness their own success, they can then begin to believe in their own ability to succeed– to persevere and “be gritty,” to develop a growth mindset. And we know that growth mindset leads to greater success. And hasn’t that been the goal all along?

Developing growth mindset and grit is a process. There is no such thing as, “Make Every Kid Gritty in These 6 Easy Steps That Will Work the First Time!”

However, there are some strategies that can help students develop growth mindset.

  • Directly instruct the concepts of growth mindset and grit.
  • Change your language to reinforce effort, not intelligence. I found this was easy to do for students experiencing challenges, but quite difficult for students who were demonstrating high-performance.
  • Find ways to incorporate student-friendly language shifts in the classroom, and encourage students to embrace them.
  • Normalize mistakes. I often tell my students, “If you’re not making mistakes you’re not learning.” Or as Dweck says, “So what should we say when children complete a task—say, math problems—quickly and perfectly? Should we deny them the praise they have earned? Yes. When this happens, I say, ‘Whoops. I guess that was too easy. I apologize for wasting your time. Let’s do something you can really learn from!’”[5]
  • Don’t get so caught up in looking for proficiency that you miss growth – and don’t let your students do this either. Deliberately draw attention to their gains, and remind them that this is a direct result of their effort and engagement.

[1] Dweck, Carol. “The Power of Believing That You Can Improve.” Carol Dweck: The Power of Believing That You Can Improve | TED Talk | TED.com. TED: Ideas Worth Sharing, Nov. 2014. Web. 11 Feb. 2017. <https://www.ted.com/talks/carol_dweck_the_power_of_believing_that_you_can_improve>.

[2] Duckworth, Angela Lee. “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.” Angela Lee Duckworth: Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance | TED Talk | TED.com. TED: Ideas Worth Sharing, Apr. 2013. Web. 11 Feb. 2017. <https://www.ted.com/talks/angela_lee_duckworth_grit_the_power_of_passion_and_perseverance>.

[3] “Delaying Gratification.” Science 306.5695 (2004): 369l. American Psychological Association. Web. 10 Feb. 2017.

[4] Sokatch, Andy. “On Not Eating the Marshmallow: It’s Not (just) the Kids; It’s the Context.”Medium. N.p., 01 May 2016. Web. 11 Feb. 2017. <https://medium.com/@asokatch/on-not-eating-the-marshmallow-its-not-just-the-kids-its-the-context-2687855c4fd1#.ftqr96ahm>.

[5] Dweck, Carol S. Mindset. London: Robinson, an Imprint of Constable & Robinson, 2017. Print.

 

Control in the Classroom: Letting Students Lead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Letting students lead means giving up some control in the classroom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flow: Getting beyond gamification and badges in the classroom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Unfortunately, that is not what has been created.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

And everyone packed up and left.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exploring Racial Bias: Reflecting Inward, Projecting Outward (Part 2)

This is a continuation of a previous post. Part I can be viewed here.

During the second quarter of this school year, my teaching partners and I led our students in an intensive exploration of the concepts of racial bias and institutional racism. The impetus for this work emerged from a combination of concerns about what we saw happening in our country at large, and being aware of a microcosm of the same occurring within our school. We opened the dialogue through a series of seminar discussions. A more detailed account of these initial pieces is provided in Part 1 of this post, as linked above.

Throughout the time that we were seminaring on the issue of implicit racial bias, students were also engaging in novel discussions and assignments on After Tupac and D. Foster – a coming of age story about three African-American girls growing up in Queens in the mid-1990s.

Students were making connections between the novel and their own lives, as well as connections to the greater societal issues around them. It was at the end of one particularly provocative and rich discussion, where students had explored the motifs of stereotype, injustice, inequity, judgement, and racism, that Beau and I hit on the idea for our culminating group project.

Our work together in development of this task was a beautiful example of co-teaching at its best. Beau and I bounced ideas back and forth, and then worked through determining how to best structure each piece, so it would be accessible to all learners. (A copy of the complete student work packet is available here.)

We were so delighted with how the project developed through our collaborative work that on the day we introduced the task, we were practically shimmering with excitement. We hoped to convey this glee to our students, but, while a few reflected our enthusiasm, the majority of them looked back at us with expressions that clearly said, “I’m sorry, you want us to do what?!” They recognized the complexity and rigor of the task ahead, and the challenges that inherently arise through group work, and they were understandably apprehensive. Yet, we remained confident that we could support them in being successful with this challenging assignment.

The final two weeks of the quarter were dedicated to working on the project and groups predictably cycled through the various stages that come with any major task – excitement, anxiety, frustration, despair, pride, and relief. It was an intense time.

The project began with a creative representation of theme in the novel. Each group had to craft a theme for the novel based on the motif of racism. They then had to identify four scenes in the text which supported their theme, select a compelling quotation, provide reasoning for how this related to their theme, depict the scene, and construct a storyboard containing all these pieces.

They selected quotes like these:

“Cops always trying to bring a brother down. I’m coming from the park just now, trying to get home. I’m running down the street, and this cop just stopped me talking about ‘where you running from?’ I said, ‘I’m not running from I’m running to. Some days I’m thinking why God gave me these legs to run if it’s gonna mean getting stopped by some cop every time I try to do so.”

“’Brother in a suit is just a brother in a suit,’ he said. ‘His black head still sticking out his neck hole.’”

Students then created illustrations like these to represent the events of the novel.

Students were then required to connect their theme to the concepts explored in our seminar pieces (our supplemental texts): implicit bias in schools, stop and frisk policies, the Black Lives Matter movement, police relations with communities of color, and perceptions of race relations. None of these are easy or simple concepts.

They took the theme they had identified from the novel and expanded it outward to where they saw it represented in the real-world. Once again, they had to find evidence in the form of a direct quotation from one of the supplemental texts, and then develop reasoning to link that quotation to their theme.

The final component of the project was, perhaps, the most emotionally challenging. Students conducted an online search for images which reflected the topics they had discussed through both the novel and the supplemental texts. Many of them were shocked by what they saw.

As one student was searching for photographs, she exclaimed, “Oh, I can’t use this picture; it’s too upsetting!”

My response was, “I told you that these images might make us uncomfortable. That’s okay. It’s important that we feel uncomfortable.”

Finally, each of these components was assembled into a comprehensive display.

As the projects began to be completed, students and teachers alike witnessed the tremendous power in the work.

Josh Vogt, Gamble’s 11th and 12th grade social studies teacher, came to see how things were progressing. Josh has done considerable work on the concept of social justice, so his feedback was particularly valuable to us. He spent nearly an entire bell with us, looking at every group’s work and asking probing questions of our students.

When I spoke with him later that evening, his response was profound. He acknowledged the depth of the exploration. He shared that he wished he had been able to spend the entire quarter working on this unit with us, and he requested that I take photos and video of the project exhibition the following day, so he could share it with others doing this work around the country.

As a teacher, I was deeply touched by this praise, but I knew that it wasn’t me who most needed to hear it.

The following morning we prepared for the gallery walk of the completed projects. The tone in the room was a combination of anxiety and pride. Beau and I explained the structural and behavioral expectations of this task. Among other things, we asked that students remain silent during this activity. I clarified that the reason we set this expectation was to honor both their tremendous amount of effort and to be respectful of the seriousness of the subject matter. I also shared with them what Josh had said – that he was so moved by the work that he had been brought to tears, that he was proud that they had accepted the challenge to tackle this topic, that he found the work of such quality that he wanted to share it with others around the country.

An outside expert’s view of their work carried so much more weight than directions given by the same teachers they hear day after day.

Even with the reinforcement of Josh’s words, I anticipated having to repeatedly enforce the expectation of silence.

Once more the students surprised me. There was no need for any kind of redirection. For nearly an hour, as they viewed each other’s projects, they were silent. There was hardly any sound at all beyond the shuffling of feet as students moved between displays. They carefully examined each project, taking notes as directed. In all honesty, I have never experienced anything quite like it before. The tone was nothing short of reverent.   So much so, that at the end of our time, several students expressed disappointment that they had to go to their elective classes, rather than spend more time looking at the projects. Here is a short video clip chronicling the gallery walk.

Later that afternoon, we concluded our project experience with a final seminar discussion. We focused on two primary questions:

  • How does the issue of racial bias impact us as a nation, as a community, as individuals?
  • How might we as a nation, as a community, as individuals address this?

The conversation vacillated between hopeful and hopeless.

An 8th grade boy optimistically indicated that he believed things were going to get better. As evidence, he proudly specified the work that we had been doing as a class, and Mr. Vogt’s intention to share it with others who were working on the same issues nationally.

One young woman angrily noted, “We can talk about it, and we can do things, but it won’t make any difference because of all the racist people who won’t change. You have to want to change in order to change, and they don’t even care.”

And then we talked about Change Innovation Theory – the idea that change is led by Innovators and Early Adopters, and it develops into a movement that grows such that the wave of the majority will do the work of influencing a resistant minority.

And with that, the bell rang and we ran out of time.

The issues addressed through this project are difficult ones. They are hard realities, but we do our students – of all colors and backgrounds – a disservice if we don’t being these concerns to the forefront and provide our students with ways to explore them.

For my students the conversation has only just begun, and the real work of change has yet to be started, but I am proud to teach Innovators and Early Adopters. They will change the world, and I hope that they will start with our school.