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.
“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.
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.” 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.
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 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.
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. 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!’”
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.
 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>.
 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>.
 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>.
 Dweck, Carol S. Mindset. London: Robinson, an Imprint of Constable & Robinson, 2017. Print.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sixty-seven percent. That was the number I was banking on. I was running discipline data, and I already knew that 67% was my golden number – the percentage I didn’t want to exceed.
But . . .the results were yielding something different.
90%, 87%, 85%, 90%, 82%, 84%
These numbers weren’t just above 67%; they were way above it.
As I ran quarter after quarter of discipline data, I kept hoping to see something different, a change in the trend, or at least an outlier or two.
But that wasn’t the case. Every quarter, the same pattern emerged: our Black students were involved in disciplinary infractions at far higher rates than any other racial group, and at far higher rates than their representation in our population would indicate – 67%.
As Gamble’s Positive School Culture Committee Chair, I had begun this process because we were curious about a blip we saw in the student survey data related to school climate. When we disaggregated the responses by race for the questions that dealt with fairness of consequences, we noted that our black students felt that consequences were less fair than our white students. The rest of the responses were fairly consistent across racial demographics, so it caught our attention when we saw that 52% of our African-American students felt that consequences for misbehavior were seldom or almost never fair; whereas only 34% of our white students felt this way.
It wasn’t a huge gap; it was just bigger than anything we had seen in response to the other survey questions. However, it caused us to pause and reflect on what it might mean. This survey question was about student perception, but we realized that if we disaggregated our discipline data the same way that we had for the survey data, that we would be able to compare reality to perception.
Which is how I found myself repeatedly staring at my computer screen in disbelief and horror as every quarter showed nearly the same thing about our discipline data – our Black students were markedly over-represented.
I shouldn’t have been so shocked. These results aren’t different from what has been widely reported nationally: students of color face harsher and more frequent disciplinary consequences than their white counterparts. In fact, the national data shows a significantly wider discrepancy than the data at Gamble. Proportionally, our data notes that every 1.3% of high-level consequences were assigned to 1% of our Black population; whereas nationally 2.3% of high-level consequences were assigned to 1% of Black students.
Doing better than the national average is not, however, something to celebrate. The cost of these high-level discipline responses is high. We know that suspensions and expulsions lead to a decreased likelihood that students will graduate from high school and an increased likelihood that these students will wind up incarcerated. On average, one out of every three African-American males will be incarcerated during their lifetime.
None of this was new information for me. I just didn’t want any of it to be true at Gamble. I wanted my school to be different. I didn’t want us to be culpable. I wanted my students to be protected. Unfortunately, that’s not what our data indicated
Schoolhouse Rock taught us, “Knowledge is Power.” Now that we had the knowledge, what were we going to do with it?
Turns out, it’s easier to compile the data than it is to address what it shows. There is no quick fix solution.
We decided that the first step was to be transparent — to share the data and to acknowledge our concern about it. To this end it was shared on teacher teams and at PTO; some of our high school teachers shared it with students as well.
Those of us who teach junior high chose not to share it with students. We didn’t know how to craft the conversation in such a way that it would be structured and pro-active, and we didn’t know how to guide our students toward recognizing both the gravity and the complexity of the situation.
So, for more than a year, we did nothing.
Although, I suppose, it wasn’t really nothing. It weighed on all of our minds as, tragically, during the same time frame, police shootings of black males – another example of implicit racial bias – was repeatedly in the public eye.
Eric Garner, John Crawford, Michael Brown, Ezell Ford, Dante Parker, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, Rumain Brisbon, Jerame Reid, Tony Robinson, Philip White, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Brendon Glenn, Sam DuBose, Gregory Gunn, Philando Castile, Terrence Crutcher …
It is not possible to see this list of names and not worry which of my students could join them.
We knew that we had to talk with them about all of this, but the prospect of that was so intimidating. I know there are other teachers, like this one, who were braver than I. There were teachers all over the country who were having these difficult conversations with their students.
It wasn’t that we didn’t want to have these discussions – we did – we just wanted to make sure that we did it “right” – that we found the right materials, that we structured it well, that we prepared students correctly, that we tied the content to our cycle of study, that we identified the perfect time to have the conversation, and that we did everything within our power to ensure that it was a productive conversation, rather than a damaging one.
While each of these factors is important, waiting for this confluence of perfection was, of course, a subtle kind of avoidance. Waiting on perfect, allowed us to do nothing.
But, finally, this October, we began to find some traction. Our second quarter novel, After Tupac and D. Foster, included thematic undercurrents of racial bias. In light of this, Beau, my teaching partner, also assigned a reading about a study of implicit racial bias in preschool classrooms: Implicit Racial Bias Often Begins as Early as Preschool, A Study Finds by Yolanda Young.
With this assignment, the die was cast. Although we didn’t even realize it yet.
We didn’t yet know how profoundly this beginning would impact the entirety of the quarter, but we did know that we needed to be very conscientious about how we prepared our students for engaging in this conversation. Because we wanted all students to receive an identical message about the expectations for how we talk about these sensitive topics, we arranged the room to accommodate both of our seminar groups at the same time.
As we do before any seminar, we reminded students to keep their comments relevant to the text, to disagree with statements rather than people, to give everyone opportunities to speak, to not form alliances, and to be open to changing their minds.
But this time, because of the emotionally-charged subject matter, we had to provide additional guidance. We had never before explored such challenging content with our students. This type of careful preparation is critically important before embarking with students on any topic that is likely to elicit strong reactions.
We instructed students to give each other the benefit of the doubt. To be careful of their words but also to be honest and to risk making a mistake. To recognize that we might inadvertently hurt each other’s feelings and to be willing to share these feelings and question one another as a means of seeking understanding.
And then we began. It felt a bit like jumping off a cliff.
But, like in most things, our students rose to the challenge beautifully, and we had a powerful and engaging discussion. We hadn’t planned to bring up the school discipline data, but in both groups, the conversation naturally led in this direction. When that moment appeared, (and it happened nearly simultaneously in both groups), we openly shared the disproportionate percentages, and explained why they were concerning.
The students’ response was flabbergasting. I was prepared for them to be angry. I was prepared for them to be indignant. I was prepared for them to blame us.
I was not at all prepared for them to discount it entirely.
“That used to happen at my old school.”
“My teacher did that last year. I always got in trouble just because I am black.”
“I have a friend who says that happens at his school.”
And most notably, “Well, that probably happens in high school.”
The closest they came to seeing the data as personally impacting them was by claiming that if it was a problem in our building, it must be something that happens in our high school program and not about junior high … or them … or us.
Their interpretation is simply not true; the data contains no indication that there are differences between grade levels, and I am still dumbfounded as to why they responded in this way. Perhaps, like us, they simply needed more time to process it.
We hadn’t intended to make the concept of implicit racial bias and its impacts the subject of all our seminar discussions for the quarter, but the deeper we delved into the subject, the more there seemed to be to discuss. We decided to run with this idea, and each week throughout the quarter, we seminared on a different aspect of racial bias.
At times, our conversations were uncomfortable.
When reading about “Stop and Frisk” policies, a student asked whether that meant that every police officer who engaged in this type of policing was racist. That’s a touchy question to answer, but it helped us examine the difference between individual racism and societal racism, as well as the difference between overt racism and implicit racism.
During one discussion, a white student courageously noted, “Somewhere, deep down inside, everybody is at least a teeny, tiny bit racist.” This comment elicited strong reactions, but it helped us to turn the lens on ourselves.
On several occasions during the quarter, when given behavioral redirection, students accused us of racial bias. That felt terrible, but these challenges helped us to reflect carefully on our reactions and responses to student behavior.
It was through this process of self-reflecton that I realized that we had made a mistake – we had skipped a step.
Maria Montessori said, “It is not enough for the teacher to love the child. She must first love and understand the universe. She must prepare herself, and truly work at it.” This is one of my favorite quotations, and yet I had forgotten it here.
The teacher must prepare herself. It was not just our students who were impacted by these difficult conversation; we were experiencing this, too. We had been guiding them, but had failed to use our resources to prepare ourselves.
Confronting the societal demon of racism in a mixed-race group of colleagues is a daunting task. We agreed to commit one meeting a month to discussing this topic through the lens of a variety of resources that we would take turns providing. Like we did with students, we established special meeting norms for creating a “Courageous Space” in which to engage is these conversations.
This work is an ongoing process, but so far we have watched Bryan Stevenson’s video Confronting Injustice and read John Metta’s article “I, Racist” and engaged in rich conversations on each.
None of this is enough. None of it marks our ending place, but taken together, it is our beginning. We have embarked upon this journey. It is a complicated one, and it requires us to be brave. And to be humble.
It requires us to take a hard look at both what is happening around us, and what exists within us. Next week’s post will detail the initial work we did with our students to help them synthesize their learning and their experiences, and to guide them toward activism.
 U.S. Department Of Education Office For Civil Rights. “Civil Rights Data Collection Data Snapshot: School Discipline.” CIVIL RIGHTS DATA COLLECTION 1 (2014): 1-24.Education Week. U.S. Department of Education, Mar. 2014. Web. 1 Jan. 2017. <http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/rulesforengagement/CRDC%20School%20Discipline%20Snapshot.pdf>.
 Amurao, Caria. “Fact Sheet: How Bad Is the School-to-Prison Pipeline?” PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 01 Jan. 2017.
Gamble Montessori, as a new school, established a varsity football program relatively recently. Then we came in second in our first 3 football games. But this hot Saturday in early September, we had a good feeling. We had 24 young men on the team, which meant that though many of our best players would spend the balmy afternoon playing offense AND defense, we would have the chance to do some substituting. Having this few students always put us at a disadvantage against our opponents from bigger schools, but today we were playing a rival from a nearby program, a K-12 school from CPS: Oyler High School. They had just about the same number of players, which meant they would be as tired as us in the 4th quarter. So instead of watching a 4th quarter lead evaporate, as it had in 2 of our first 3 losses, there was a chance that we could build a lead and then win a war of attrition under the hot autumn sun.
Our Gamble Gators team did not have a lot of amenities. The coaches and players themselves carried much of the equipment onto the field, much of which had been borrowed or donated to the program: a parent-purchased kicking tee, two water coolers borrowed from the school’s camping supplies, and 6 Gatorade squirt bottles donated by a vending company rounded out our sideline possessions. At least today we were wearing matching uniforms in the school colors of green, purple, and black. This was a step up from the pre-season, when the local newspaper ran pictures from summer practice with our players in borrowed uniforms of brown and white, the word “BEARS” emblazoned across the front of each pictured jersey. A couple of fathers who had volunteered to help with the team, perhaps discouraged by our slow start, had other plans develop for this Saturday afternoon, and I soon realized that we had no waterboy on the sideline. So I volunteered for the job.
It is a unique and humorous experience – observing the look on a player’s face when he realizes the waterboy who just arrived in the huddle is his principal.
In addition to having the authority to direct the young men to take a drink they might otherwise refuse, being waterboy meant I was present on the field in a unique way. I had access I did not usually get – even as the principal of the school – access that is unique to the sport. Only the coaches and players themselves were closer to the action. This was how I got to see Jordan Sheffeld up close. Jordan was an exceptional athlete. A strong lineman with unusual agility, he could keep his balance well when blocking and tackling. On most teams, the quarterback was the onfield leader, but our young program had a freshman in that position, and so Jordan, who played offense and defense on most downs, was a team captain. He was the one who calmed down players in the huddle, and he could adjust the players based on the call that came in from the sidelines. This was part, but not all, of how he won the game for us that day.
Long story short, the game went just as described above. We got out to an early lead. A strong defensive stand in the middle of the final quarter meant we could run out the clock and seal our first ever program win.
I spoke to him Monday after the game. “Jordan, you were remarkable.”
“Thanks, Mr. Jose.”
“But do you know what you did?”
“Well, we won. So, I guess that was what I was thinking you were talking about.” He gave me a quizzical look and paused digging in his locker. “What are YOU talking about?”
“Well, you know that guy who lined up across from you?” He said he did, and supplied his uniform number and, to my surprise, his name. He explained that they had played basketball and football together growing up. I continued, “Well, you dominated him.”
“Yes, I suppose I did,” he grinned at being recognized. In fact, on several plays he recorded what is called in football a “pancake.” It is a descriptive phrase for how the guy you blocked looked after the block: flat on his back, like a pancake.
“But it wasn’t just knocking him down. It was that after each play, you picked him back up. And then, on the next snap, you knocked him down. One time when I ran out there, I swear you told him, ‘It’s okay, you’ll get me next time.’”
“Um, yeah, I remember telling him that.” He smiled at the subtle taunt. “I told him some other stuff too.”
“But then you picked him up again. You know what you did?” I waited till he looked me in the eye. “He didn’t put up much of a fight in the 4th quarter, did he? It’s because you broke his spirit. With good sportsmanship, and a dominant physical performance, you defeated his desire to beat you.
“I would say that you provided about the most Montessori performance one could ask for – you did your job perfectly, for the whole game, and you picked up your opponent after each play, then went out to beat him again.”
Montessori education is occasionally parodied as the refuge of pampered upper middle class children who clamor for participation medals after lacing their shoes. These imagined Montessori children become weak-kneed in the face of competition, and they blanch at the prospect of hard work.
In fact, the Montessori athlete is much like any other. Reveling in a sense of personal growth and self-development, Montessori athletes understand that practice is an important part of successful performance, and they embrace challenges in team and individual situations. They are not magical thinkers who only find satisfaction in winning, and thus seek out ways to be seen as winning without effort. Instead, they are hard workers who understand that competition with others is an important part of the athletic equation. In fact, it is often through competition with others that some of us can discover the inner drive to be our best selves. They seek out tests of their strength and speed and acumen. They challenge the clock, and set personal goals for weight lifted or the accuracy of a throw, or the excellence of an intended outcome.
The untested or unchallenged student athlete might believe wrongly that she is the best at an activity merely because she feels an intense sense of freedom within the activity itself. The Montessori child has moved beyond defining her performance solely on the basis of how it feels in the moment or solely on the basis of whether the work produces a victory. I think we all, at some point as children, believed we were the fastest runners in the world. Our children call us over, breathless, to watch them run across the yard at what seems to us to be an entirely ordinary child’s speed, then they insist to us that they are practically flying, and look to us for confirmation. What can we say? “Yes, indeed, that WAS very fast!” And our parents relate that we, too, repeated this ritual in our youth. So only when our children line up next to our neighbors’ children and see that one or two of them are far faster, do they begin to understand that running fast is a gift and a blessing, but running faster requires preparation and skill.
Most sports confer this concept adequately, but some sports do it better than others. For instance, runners in cross country and track, while they run against each other and there is a winner in the sport, are also always running against their own best times and the conditions of the track. Additionally, a runner can compete against published record times and a personal best time; in a sense, any runner can “compete” against the very best runners in their city, county, state, or the world, by reviewing posted times. In these sports, as students enter any competition with any number of opponents, there are two goals ever in mind, both require individual improvement: beat the fastest person, achieve my fastest personal time.
Some team sports develop this duality better than others.
Football exemplifies a team sport with many factors that complicate individual improvement. In this most recent season, 2016, our football team found itself on both sides of lopsided games. We won an important rivalry by 35 points early in the season. Five weeks later we lost by nearly 40 points. Had we gotten weaker? Slower? Less skilled? Had we truly regressed the comparative equivalent of 80 points? While the competition on the field offered each player the chance to practice his skills and improve himself in each game, the physical size and number of players on one football team can serve to mask the personal growth or regression. The tremendous advantage of size is compounded over the course of four quarters, in some cases making it less about personal improvement and more about personal safety. In each lopsided game, the smaller team found itself physically outmatched, and unable to improve in their skills. A taller basketball team starts with an advantage that is not unsurmountable, but which noticeably impacts the game at each end of the court on every possession.
It is important to note that the fields and courts used by our athletics teams are not the place where MOST of our students experience athletics at school. We require EVERY student to take physical education. In these physical education classes, our goal should be to encourage every child to understand what it means to be fit, and to seek out ways to, among other things, recognize “the value of physical activity for health, enjoyment, challenge, self-expression and/or social interaction.” Part of this is teaching students the rules and spirit of different sports. And, of course, that should be done in a way that promotes health, safety, and a sense of community. One uncontroversial adjustment made at most (if not all) schools is teaching flag football or “touch” football (where one or two hands on an opponent with the ball ends the play). Of course we make adjustments to make that sport safer. In other sports we make minor variations to increase participation as well, such as creating balanced teams and modifying rules to increase enjoyment among students who are less athletic. (Unfortunately, these sometimes are categorized as “girls’ rules” in some places, which sends distressing messages to our most athletic girls and our least athletic boys.)
We SHOULD make adjustments to these sports to make them more inclusive in physical education class. We should support and encourage our students to think about how to make the adjustments to create more inclusive but still cooperative games that they play on the playground and in the neighborhood. Cooperative game guru Karl Rohnke, author of Silver Bullets, a collection of cooperative games, provides a rationale for adjusting games on the fly: what is the point of a game if it is only fun for a few? Another pair of games enthusiasts, Adam Fletcher and Kari Kunst, introduce their article with a quote that suggests the existence of two kinds of games, the finite one, with fixed rules and a winner and loser, and the infinite one, which features changing rules and an intent to never end.
Now, about dodgeball.
When I directed my physical education teacher to stop playing dodgeball in class, some of my students were vocally upset. Others were supportive. I was confident that I had taken an important stand for what is good about athletics, and what can be bad about it. My decision was not based on stories of injuries and lawsuits. I was aware of some of them, like the Bronx school where an ill-advised indoor recess dodgeball game resulted in painful and expensive broken orthodontia from a soccer ball that struck a student who had opted out of the game. I had heard myriad stories about broken bones and bloody noses, but at the time I was not aware of state-wide bans in summer camps in New Hampshire and New York. My decision was not even, or at least not entirely, driven by the regular appearance of students in my office who had been wounded physically during dodgeball, or who had been wounded emotionally by the prospect of having things thrown at them by more athletic and more aggressive students.
No, it was primarily that dodgeball differs significantly from traditional team sports. Unlike basketball or soccer, there is little opportunity for actual strategy or running designed plays. Unlike individual sports, there is no measure for judging whether you have improved or even mastered a skill. In short, there seemed no argument for it. There were better ways to practice throwing for accuracy, and running, and even dodging. Kick ball for instance offered a chance to do these things, with the opportunity for respite at the next base, or the chance to score a run and assist the team. Meanwhile, in dodge ball, instead of providing ongoing support and contributing to the group’s success, your team is slowly whittled away. The acceptable athletics strategy of attacking another team’s weakness means, in dodgeball, that the least athletic student starts the game being targeted by one or more of the best athletes on the other side of the line, each throwing balls in his or her direction. This player then spends the bulk of the game, perhaps dazed by being struck with a ball to the head or face, sitting on the sidelines, ostensibly rooting for their team.
It is widely accepted that there are good and bad kinds of competition. I believe that dodgeball is inherently structured to emphasize the potential negative aspects of competitive games. It defies modification. Even as a fifth grader, I recognized the irony in the rule added by my PE teacher, who announced that if you got hit in the face you were not out. He meant to encourage us to throw balls at our classmates’ bodies, but the practical application was that moments after you got hit in the face, your teacher announced that you were still a viable target, and a dazed and embarrassed target at that.
In immediate response to the ban, students posted a petition in the hallway outside the gym. Thoughtfully, they included a few caveats for how they would conduct themselves when they played the game in the future. For instance, they suggested that students who were uncomfortable could just opt out. I spoke with the petitioners. I remember vividly our discussion, which focused on this “opt out” clause. Students could choose not to play without penalty. During the conversation, it was acknowledged by several people that it did not make sense to play a game where, by the act of playing it, several students would feel targeted and would instead choose to sit on the sidelines. That concept certainly violated our core value of community, for what is the value of a game if not everyone can enjoy it? If at the outset of the game, we knew that some students would be permitted to not participate? The very act of choosing to play dodgeball would then become exclusionary. One of the students who had signed the petition had privately expressed a concern about the nature of the game to me. I realized that in the conversation, I had to be careful not to expose that she had, in a sense, taken both sides of the argument. She never revealed to her friends her opposition, but, speaking as a signatory of the petition, she provided valuable arguments against dodgeball. She said to the group that the argument about including everyone was a valid point she had not considered.
After a few weeks, the petition was taken down.
Recently, I was approached by a coach who wanted to run a dodgeball tournament as a fundraiser for our program. He approached me as if he had been sent on a fool’s errand. “I heard you’re probably going to say ‘no’ to this request, but I was wondering if we could have a dodgeball tournament?”
“People sign up? Their own choice?”
“Yeah, they pay to enter,” he explained. “We have a small prize for the winner.”
I thought for a second. I considered how this request was different than in physical education class. A group of individuals will self-select to enter this tournament as a group, understanding the rules. Each would opt in because of the cause, or an interest in the game and playing with friends. They will have chosen to take the risk, and would not see it as anything other than fun if they themselves got hit and eliminated from gameplay.
“Sure. Sounds like fun.” My reservation was not about dodgeball the activity, but was instead about requiring children in physical education class to play a game that held so much potential for bad outcomes.
So, how can we work to make sure all of our students get to participate in our physical education games, and the games we play on field experiences or as community-building activities?
Ask yourself these questions, in this order:
Does this include everyone?
Is everyone getting an opportunity to contribute meaningfully to the team / group?
Does it promote physical activity and teach specific skills? Are the roles defined?
Is it fun? (Variations of this question: when someone is “out”, is it fair and clear?
How can I change it so the answers above are all “yes”? (OR At what point in the game can I ask students to change it so the answers above are all “yes”?)
When we teach students to compete in this way, instead of watering down their skills or teaching them that competition is without value, we call out their highest instincts for achievement.
One Monday night last school year, the Gamble varsity volleyball team beat Riverview East in The Swamp (as we call our home field. We are, after all, Gators). The final point of the 3-game sweep was a smash by Carrie that brought the raucous crowd to their feet. It was exciting! However, the best moment of the match for me came 7 points earlier.
On that point, a Gamble player struck the ball, and it landed on the opponent’s line for a point, according to all who saw it. The volunteer line judge, a Gamble student, flapped his flag indecisively. Riverview questioned the call and one referee went over to question the linesman, who indicated that he had moved the flag because he was unsure what to do when the ball hit the line. The referee called out “Gamble point.” However, our girls were already shouting to the head referee, “We will play the point over.” Just like that, they gave away a point. And 7 points later, they won anyway.
Having a faith in playing the game the right way, and responding appropriately to confusion over a call, demonstrates the kind of character we are attempting to instill in each of our students. Applying it during a crucial game against our oldest rival takes respect for self and respect for the game. And it does not cheapen our performance or weaken our skills.
 National Standards for K-12 Physical Education Copyright 2013, SHAPE America –Society of Health and Physical Educators, 1900 Association Drive, Reston, VA 20191, www.shapeamerica.org.
In the 2015-16 school year, Gamble Montessori earned a chance to participate in a groundbreaking new theatre program through a competitive application process. The Educational Theatre Association (EdTA), a large national actors’ guild, had initiated a program called JumpStart. Designed to help schools develop drama and theater programs, JumpStart targets schools that have no drama program. They provide training for teachers, access to modified musical scores which are tagged with the label “Jr.” (e.g. Once on This Island, Jr., or Annie, Jr.), and a structure for staging your own middle school musical in the spring.
In order to be selected for JumpStart, the school must first verify their dedication and determination to establishing an ongoing drama program. This is determined through interviews, where our responses to a series of questions were investigated to make sure we had the resources and initiative to accomplish the work. Once a school was selected – Gamble was one of three in this inaugural round – JumpStart provided support throughout the process.
Following the successful staging of Once On This Island, Jr. at Gamble Montessori in the spring of 2016, I was asked to speak at a fundraising breakfast to a group of EdTA donors. Other speakers from EdTA spoke about how the program came about, and between each set of speakers a professionally produced video was shown. Each video featured snippets (like this one) from the training or the performances, and interviews with those involved, myself included. Below are my remarks, edited for clarity.
You probably know me from having seen me on this wall in that last video. I’ll be available for autographs afterward.
When they called and asked me, “Would you like to speak to a group of potential donors about …” I said, “Yes.”
I am a huge proponent of the Educational Theatre Association’s JumpStart Program. I asked, “What would you like me to talk about? Would you like me to talk about my staff and how amazing it was that three teachers, a paraprofessional and a volunteer from the community got together and gave all this time to help these students? And how they split between them a very, very modest stipend?” And they said, “No, no.”
So I’m not here to talk about that.
I said, “You know, I can talk about how the program has grown. How the first year we only had 10 or 11 auditions and this year we had 30; and how the number of parents quadrupled from the first meeting to this year’s meeting and what enthusiasm has been generated in the school.”
They said, “No don’t say anything about that, we will take care of that piece.”
So I scratched that.
And I offered, “You know, I could talk about those moments in the performance where I cried. One was the moment where the students, a dozen of them, were on the stage. And they did this dance number, and they were all doing their own thing, and it was very clear that they were all hitting their marks and they were looking at each other. You could see this confidence and trust that only comes from working together as a team and a group. Or I could talk about the moment where they said, in a very mature way, about how this female character was ‘healing’ this male character,” (with both hands I did air quotes around the word ‘healing’.) “And how middle school students pulled off a very mature joke and it was funny. And because it was funny in just the right way, I cried.”
And they said, “No, don’t tell that story. We have videos.”
So I’m not here to talk about any of those things.
I want to talk about the students.
I can just tell you, first of all, I think you already heard evidence of what I am about to tell you in the comments from the speakers before me, and in the video with student interviews that we watched together. Obviously the students were affected by the experience. And these students were a cross section of our school. At Gamble, about 75% of our students are eligible for free or reduced price lunch. That means that many of our students live in poverty, essentially. We provide every student a free breakfast and a free lunch at school every day. Many of them need that. Many of them don’t. For a few of our students that’s the only meal that they eat.
That description is not true for all of our students at Gamble Montessori; as a school we have some students who come from traditional two-parent working professional households along with some who have experienced profound poverty. And students from all of those situations participated in our theatre program, but I want to talk to you about one student. I want to talk to you about Ty’Esha Whitfield. I want to tell her story, but first I’ll let you know that I spoke to her and got her permission to tell this story. And I spoke to her mother and got her mother’s permission to tell this story. I would never share this kind of privileged information about a student without that level of permission because, well, it’s a powerful story. And it is personal. And it might make some people uncomfortable. I will say that it should make some people uncomfortable.
Ty’Esha at the start of the year was a quiet, heavy set young lady who came to our school and didn’t have a lot of friends. She came from an elementary school where not a lot of her peers came to Gamble. Gamble Montessori is a magnet school. We draw students from every neighborhood in the district, so it is possible that a student can arrive here in 7th grade without any of their 6th grade classmates. So no built-in friendships to start the year. And she was having trouble making new friends.
She is a conscientious child. About the third week of school she was outside and several students were playing on a tree branch and she pulled on it and the tree branch broke. I said to her, “We can’t do anything about this today, but I’m going to bring the tools tomorrow and we’re going to fix this. We’re going to have to cut the branch because we can’t leave the tree open to disease.” She looked crestfallen.
The next day I went down into the lunchroom looking for her and SHE tapped ME on the shoulder and she said, “Mr. Jose, what do we need to do to fix this tree? I’m ready.”
Ty’Esha is a conscientious young lady.
I didn’t know at the time, in the first weeks of school, that she had started meeting with our school psychologist, Patty Moore. Her community teachers had referred her because she was having such difficulty making friends with students at Gamble, and she was very socially awkward. She had reported symptoms of depression. Our psychologist learned that one of the things she did to calm herself down was sing to herself a favorite Disney song. Patty was struck by her voice and videotaped it for her and played it back, so Ty’Esha could hear her voice. Patty shared the video, with Ty’Esha’s permission, with her teachers and with me.
She had a beautiful voice. And we all encouraged her to try out for the musical. And she got the role of Erzulie, the goddess of love, in our productions of Once On This Island, Jr. She had a show stopping solo. She was so proud of herself, and justifiably so.
About this time I talked with the psychologist and, with Ty’Esha’s permission, she shared the information I am about to share with you.
It turned out that during the production, during the practice and rehearsal stage, Ty’Esha and her mother had experienced homelessness in a most profound and deep way. As soon as they were removed from their home, her mother had tried her sister and all her family members and extended friends. For 2 nights they had nowhere to stay at all, and they stayed in their own car.
To her great credit, when I shared with Ty’Esha that I knew this, she said to me, in the fast-paced rambling way of someone confessing a long-held secret: “Mr. Jose, don’t worry, it was only 2 nights, and we were okay. Then we were in a shelter, Mr. Jose, and now it’s better. We were only there a couple of weeks, and I was okay with the not sleeping so much, I was really worried about my Mom. But it’s okay now because after we got with our sister for a while, my Mom got a job. And she’s now renting an apartment just a couple of blocks from school, so I can walk home after I practice for whatever this year’s musical will be.”
How can you do anything but love and care for a student who relates the story of spending two nights in a car, but then expresses concern that her principal would worry about her upon learning this?
Ty’Esha is the kind of student that a program like this touches and changes. It didn’t just change her individually, like giving her a great experience – which it did – but it literally changed her life. It changed where her Mom chose to live so she could be part of this program. It’s helped her stay focused on school while her family got back on their feet. The impact of this program on our students is an inspiration to me and to the teachers and other volunteers who give so much of their time and energy to the program.
I’m telling you one story, but in reality I’m exposing hidden stories like this everywhere. And I can tell you that without this program, that it’s possible that Ty’Esha Whitfield would still be in a situation where she was without friends or struggling to make friends. Where she wasn’t confident in school, and she didn’t have a triumph on stage. In fact, this wasn’t just an accomplishment, wasn’t just a great night. It was a triumph for a young lady whose life had not given her much winning at all. It had not given her much hope.
So as you think about those envelopes in front of you today, I want you to think about Ty’Esha and I want you to think about the work that’s happening in each of these schools and come out to the school nearest you, be part of it. Think about how you can give, with not just with your money, but think about how you can give with your time and resources and come out and be with us, and come to our performances. I can tell you other students’ stories, but I promise you that on every stage there are more than one of these stories.
The arts, in addition to being popular among students and families, correlate to positive academic outcomes. For instance, there is a positive correlation between the number of arts classes taken in high school and student SAT scores. We also know that participating in band doubles the chance of performing well in senior level math classes, and that the effect is more pronounced among impoverished students. The JumpStart program itself is working in partnership with Dr. James Catterall of the Centers for Research on Creativity to look at the effect of the program on students’ critical thinking, problem-solving, and other developmental assets. Early research, reported verbally on the morning of the breakfast by Jim Palmerini of EdTA, shows growth in these areas among students who participated in the program compared with a control group at the three involved schools, Gamble, Finneytown, and Holmes.
The JumpStart program expanded this year, to include a total of six schools. These now include Dater High School and Aiken High School, both part of Cincinnati Public Schools. Also in the program are Finneytown Middle School, Felicity-Franklin Middle School, and Holmes Middle School. Starting your own drama program is not an easy process, but EdTA has provided ample support and is looking to continue to expand its program and increase middle school students’ access to drama programs. If you are interested in participating in the program, Ginny Butsch would be glad to hear from you. You can contact her at email@example.com. Or if you would like to support the JumpStart program financially, follow this link to contribute.
Gamble Montessori will be performing Annie Jr. March 17 and 18, 2017.
 Catterall, James S., Richard Chapleau, and John Iwanaga (2002), “Involvement in the Arts and Human Development: Extending an Analysis of General Associations and Introducing the Special Cases of Intensive Involvement in Music and Theatre Arts.” In R. Deasy (Ed.), Critical Links: Learning in the Arts and Student Achievement and Social Development, Washington, DC: AEP
“From the day she was born I knew she was special.”
“Let me tell you about my child. He is special.”
This message is repeated again and again as one family after another stands at the podium and speaks.
This is Meet the Seniors Night. It serves as a kind of kick-off to Senior year, and it is one of my favorite school events.
At this ceremony, the families of every senior stand with their student, and share the important details of their journey with their child … so far. It is the opportunity to speak publicly about what makes each child unique and precious, and to have this noted and honored by the school community.
The words spoken by one parent this year, “Don’t forget that you are as magnificent as you are,” are an accurate summation of the messages given by each parent to each child.
It proclaims: “This child is special.”
And, indeed, she is. And, indeed, he is. And, indeed, they all are.
In his opening remarks at this event, Jack says, “Acknowledgement is love, spoken aloud.”
And, indeed, it is, for throughout the evening, as family after family acknowledges their student, the room becomes palpably filled with pure love.
But this event is about more than just acknowledgment. It is the beginning of the process of letting go and moving on. It is a rite of passage ceremony that marks the beginning of Senior year and embarkment on the final steps of the journey toward graduation.
Rachel Kessler, in her book, The Soul of Education (which identifies “The 7 Gateways to the Soul of Adolescents) notes the importance of these rituals.
“The need for initiation deals with rites of passage for the young – guiding adolescents to become more conscious about the irrevocable transition from childhood to adulthood. Adults can give young people tools for dealing with all of life’s transitions and farewells. Meeting this need for initiation often involves ceremonies with parents and faculty that welcome them into the community of adults.”
Erin Wilson, Gamble’s Senior Class Advisor, opens the Meet the Seniors event with this statement, “Rites of passage can take on many forms and are present in many aspects of society, but all mark a person’s transition from one status to another. Rites of passage show what social hierarchies, values and beliefs are important in specific cultures.”
Rite of passage rituals date back to earliest recorded history, but were first presented as a critical and universal cultural process by Arnold van Gennup in 1909. Van Gennep identified these celebrations as a structure that serves to ease the difficult transitions from one life phase to another.
Coming of age, or growing up, is hard. It includes both the act of letting go of childhood and that of assuming the weighty mantle of adulthood. Like many processes, this transition is neither linear nor simple. As children progress through adolescence, they move forward and backwards along the continuum of development – sometimes experimenting with ideas, actions, and relationships beyond their years, and then, just as readily, returning to the safety and comfort of childlike behaviors and roles. Gradually, over time, their forays into the world of adulthood become more frequent, and their retreats to the metaphoric nursery occur less and less often, until they disappear entirely.
This is what makes adolescence such a tender time. In the beginning, children stand poised on one side of a great divide, and then, for a time, they stand unsteadily, with one foot balanced precipitously on each side of this chasm. Ultimately, they are ready to step firmly across to the other side, but this doesn’t happen suddenly, or even all at once, and, as a result, we run the risk of failing to note its occurrence at all.
In the modern, Western world, we have few remaining secular rites of passage marking the transition from adolescence to adulthood; however, according to some scholars, including Kessler, human beings have a psychological need to participate in ceremonies that honor and support life’s transitions. Robert Brain even goes so far as to suggest that the absence of these rituals is fundamentally damaging to both individuals and to society as a whole. “Brain asserts that Western societies do not have initiation at puberty; instead of ritual, we have disturbed teenagers and infantile adults. At the age of eighteen, teenagers are ‘magically’ converted into adults”
The work of intentionally creating these critical rites of passage falls on the community of adults who participate in the hard work of guiding children along the path to maturity. Teachers are uniquely positioned to take on this task.
Meet the Seniors Night is one of several rites of passage events that take place during a student’s time at Gamble. Each student’s journey through our secondary Montessori program begins in earnest during the initiation ceremony that takes place at fall camp. This is continued with the ritual of saying good-bye to our middle schoolers and assuring them of their readiness for high school that occurs on the last night of the 8th grade trip to Pigeon Key. By the time our students stand with their parents on Meet the Seniors night at the beginning of senior year, they are nearly transformed from their junior high selves, and this maturation process is complete and finalized when they proudly cross the stage to receive their diplomas at graduation.
Each of these moments is powerful, and for a long time, I believed that they were conducted for the sole benefit of the novitiate. This year, however, for the first time, I fully understood that these experiences are equally impactful for all those who participate in them.
I came to this realization while working with the 8th graders on the final preparations for the 7th grade initiation at fall camp. Each year on the last night of camp, our 8th graders lead a ceremony, that they plan in advance, to welcome the 7th graders to our community. It is a powerful experience that students remember vividly, and although it takes somewhat different forms each year, there are elements that remain consistent from year to year. The ceremony always takes place after dark, and it includes an intentionally developed sense of mystery and apprehensive excitement as the 8th graders assemble separately from the 7th graders who are seated around the campfire. Each seventh grade student is individually invited to process through a line of 8th graders where they are presented with a variety of symbols marking their official initiation into our community.
I had always assumed that the basic function of this ceremony was to help the incoming students feel like a part of the community. This year, however, I understood its purpose differently.
About an hour before the ritual was set to begin, I met with the 8th graders to finalize all the pieces. They are always so excited that it can be challenging to corral their energy and get them to focus. This year, as we were verifying who would fulfill which roles and tasks, I asked who would be escorting the individual 7th graders from their seat at the campfire to the area where the 8th graders would be waiting. Zenyatta, a very quiet and introverted student, blurted out, “That’s me!” I was startled as this was not a role that I expected her to take on. It’s a big job that requires many trips back and forth to the campfire in the dark. I asked who would like to assist Zenyatta with this, as it’s generally a task given to two students. Zenyatta immediately interrupted me by saying, “No. It’s just me. I can do it by myself.” I was a bit perplexed by her insistence, but I had clearly underestimated her investment in this ritual.
As we lined up to process through the campsite, Zenyatta was practically wriggling out of her skin as she squealed, “I am so excited!” Once we got into position by the campfire, she looked at me and asked, “Is it time? Who should I get first?” Back and forth she went, determinedly locating the next 7th grader at the fire and bringing them over to the initiation ceremony. Each trip was punctuated by her breathless question, “Who’s next?” When my response was finally, “That’s it. That’s the last one.” Her face was crestfallen as she said, “Really? That’s it? It’s over, already?”
This ceremony is an initiation ceremony for the newly arrived seventh graders, but it serves as so much more. Clearly, for Zenyatta, designing and implementing the ceremony was important in developing her role as a leader; however it also fulfilled an important purpose for the classroom community as a whole. “An intentional rite of passage experience provides the space for the community to transmit its core values and confer the role responsibilities appropriate to the initiate’s stage of life, thus insuring cultural continuity, a sort of knitting together of the generations.” In designing the ceremony, the eighth graders must reflect on the values and principles of the classroom group, and determine how to best confer these ideas, roles, and responsibilities onto the incoming students.
Some of this has become tradition. For example, in the United Leaders community, students always incorporate the reading of the poem “Great Leaders” by Meiji Stewart, which serves as a kind of motto for our classrooms. There are also other traditions such as chanting UL as initiates pass through a corridor of 8th grade students, writing UL on their cheeks in face paint, and distributing certificates bearing each 7th graders name and an observed character strength.
Students also always read statements of welcome, which convey the expectations of the community. While, each year, these are written by different students, the message is remarkably similar – thus ensuring the transmission of core values as noted above.
As evidence, here are excerpts of statements written by different students in different years:
“Welcome new 7th graders. You guys are joining a community of leaders. We help each other, and make sure we make others that join this community feel welcome. You will each get a leadership role and a trait about yourself.”
“You have now joined the United Leaders’ family. United Leaders always work together and never give up on each other. We always welcome new members to the United Leaders. No matter who you are, what you do, or what you like, you will always be welcomed to the United Leaders.”
“Congratulations you are now officially a United Leader. Being a United Leader means that you take on leadership roles only a United Leader can take on. You belong in our community. Some days, you might not feel like you do, but you really do. In United Leaders, we don’t break each other, we build each other.”
“Welcome to the United Leaders’ ceremony where you will become something – and that something is a leader! As a leader, you will be challenged with obstacles you are expected to overcome. That’s where leadership roles of grit, perseverance, optimism, and helpfulness will come into play.”
The ideas of belonging, leadership, and character strengths are noted year after year. In this way, students are building a cultural legacy for themselves.
And this is the secondary function of these rites of passage.
In the final moments of Meet the Seniors Night, after hours of individual acknowledgments by families, a circle is formed, candles are lit from a flame that is passed around the circle, and Jack shares these closing remarks.
“I acknowledge you. I am proud of the work you are doing, the trail you are blazing. I try to honor you every day by working as hard as I know how so that this is a great senior year, and that your legacy remains strong for as long as I am here to honor it. I promise you this one thing. You will never be forgotten by this school. You will leave an indelible mark.”
An indelible mark. Isn’t that what each of us yearns for? To be remembered. To have made a difference. Rites of passage mark a beginning, but they also mark an ending, and it is this that makes them so bittersweet.
If we ignore the opportunity to note the farewell, we may also lose the power of leaving a legacy. The 8th graders establish their junior high legacy at fall camp; the seniors are invited to consider how the legacy of their senior year will represent them for many years to come.
Kessler is correct. We need rites of passage, for, as she notes, these life transitions are irrevocable. Rituals and ceremonies help us to move from one stage to another, causing us to note both the individual and the collective indelible marks that we have made, so we are better able to let go and move on.
As teachers, we are witness to many of the transitions of adolescence. We must honor these with gravitas, and build into our structure opportunities to formally note these changes. Like with so much of the work we do, this won’t be on any test, and it likely won’t be counted on any formal measures of our effectiveness, but it’s this work of the heart that is so important for our students … and for us.
 “Rites of Passage.” Rites of Passage. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Dec. 2016.
 Prevos, Peter. “The Social Importance of Rites of Passage and Initiations.” Horizon of Reason. Third Hemisphere Publishing, 6 Feb. 2001. Web. 18 Dec. 2016.
 “What Is a Rite of Passage? Why Is It Important?” What Is a Rite of Passage? Why Is It Important? — Rite of Passage Journeys. Rite of Passage Journeys, n.d. Web. 18 Dec. 2016.
Josh Vogt stepped into my office and handed me a calendar. “Umm, thank you,” I offered.
“October,” was his only instruction. I examined the annual Day by Day calendar published by the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless. As instructed, I turned to October, expecting to see a photograph of our students. Instead I saw a picture of a group of people I did not recognize, taken downtown near a local homeless shelter. “Bella.” I looked closer but did not see the student he named, and I looked up at him.
“Bella TOOK this picture. This is her picture, from the Mayerson experience this summer.”
The evident pride on his face was well-earned. Josh has worked diligently with students in our school to help them become aware of the social and economic factors that contribute to poverty in our community. For four years he has led a Peace and Justice intersession at Gamble Montessori which includes an overnight “shantytown” experience, where students construct a cardboard shelter and sleep in it overnight on our school grounds. He had, most recently, given up a summer week, 11 hours a day, to partner with our students, the Mayerson Foundation, and Cincinnatians experiencing homelessness. The goal was to humanize the problem, and help students understand the difficulties faced by the poorest of the poor. But what he wanted was this – not to have students merely become aware of the problem, but to have them be part of the effort to fix it. Bella was contributing meaningfully to the conversation.
For a generation, students in high schools have been doing community service in increasingly formal programs. Nearly every high school in the Cincinnati area has a community service requirement that centers around accumulating a certain number of service hours over a high school career. The Mayerson Foundation, which generates and implements “innovative approaches to important issues” in Cincinnati, has helped promote a culture of community service in more than 30 high schools and districts around the greater Cincinnati area, and is a leader in structuring programs designed to promote community service and related service learning. Nationwide, about a quarter of our population participates in meaningful community service annually, though there has been a slight decline since 2011.
Community service, can be broadly defined. In school, often it is a teacher who sets up an opportunity for individual students or an entire class to participate in an activity designed to help a person or organization. This can take many different forms. Gamble students have planted butterfly gardens and removed invasive plants, they have repaired fences to keep out predators and spent time with traumatized animals to prepare them to live with a new owner, and they have worked with toddlers and the elderly.
This passion for involving students in giving of their time and talents to others is beneficial. The community gains an energetic and impressionable army of workers, who often drag friends and family into the work. Students gain a sense of accomplishment and begin to see the scope of the work of adulthood, and the real problems faced not just in other countries but by those in their own backyard. It develops a sense of self-efficacy in the student, who can see themselves as a helper instead of someone who needs the help of others. It fosters grace and courtesy, as we teach lessons about the environment, the elderly, and people experiencing homelessness, and students become comfortable with manners in a variety of new circumstances.
Additionally, developing a habit of volunteering can actually lengthen one’s life, as older folks who volunteer regularly are shown to live longer than those who do not, when controlling for other factors. Finally, we know that adolescents crave meaningful work while resisting busy-work, and tangibly helping a person or an agency as part of a larger cause helps satisfy this urge to make a real impact in their own community.
So volunteering is good. How do we get students to buy in?
Until now, the answer has been: make them do it.
Gamble Montessori looked at other schools’ requirements and settled on an average number of hours from neighboring schools. High school students were asked to compete 50 hours of service a year, for a total of 200 hours required for graduation. Middle school students had a slightly reduced requirement of 30 hours each year.
From the beginning, student involvement in our community service requirement was uneven. Only a few of our students, born into families with strong community service ethics and the means to support this passion, met the requirement each year. Others struggled to make the required total, and sought flexibility in the rules of what we would call service. Teachers found themselves broadening the definition of service. Soon the student lists included raking leaves for grandparents, to dishwashing at home, and we even accepted spending time at home with siblings while parents were at work as community service. Other students failed to meet even this newly broadened standard, and we found ourselves in the position of asking if we were passionate enough about our commitment to service that we would prevent a student from graduating if the requirement was not met. We answered by quietly ignoring the requirement.
The odds seemed stacked against getting all of our students to meet this expectation.
The hours and evidence were hard to track at high school. We tried monitoring it through our advisory, but with infrequent meetings in a class where we typically did not keep grades, the tracking was uneven and unreliable. There was also the issue of keeping and verifying evidence. It was suggested that we centralize it and the task was assigned to one teacher assistant at the school. This seemed to be working until the paper records were entirely lost in a building move. Finally, with the help of a counselor – available through use of a temporary grant – we purchased a program for helping the students track their own hours online. After about a year of implementation, we had trained most of our students in the program, but found that the additional step of self-recording appeared to have diminished our community service participation.
Frustratingly, we also had to confront the reality that some of our students were among those who benefited from charitable giving in the Cincinnati area. More than 70% of Gamble Montessori students are living in poverty, as measured by their eligibility for free or reduced price lunch. Several of our students qualify for assistance under the McKinney-Vento act, designed for students who have experienced homelessness.
This showed up several years ago, when teacher Gloria Lane was working with students to identify a place where they wanted to do some service. One of our 8th graders reported to his teacher that he wanted to work at a particular church that was far from his home. When she asked why he would choose a site that would be hard to get to, she told me that he shared with the class, “They brought presents to my little brother last year. They were really nice.” We explored the irony, or perhaps it was something worse than mere irony, of asking students living in poverty to give their time and resources to helping others. While the spirit of giving was strong (it is my observation that often our poorest families are the quickest to give and the most generous), it felt unfair to make the same demand on our neediest families.
The final nail in the coffin came through the observation made off-hand by a staff member, perhaps Josh himself, at a meeting where the service requirement was being discussed. “It’s another step in the school to prison pipeline. We’re making them do community service hours to get out.”
Sure enough, the perception among some members of our society is that community service is assigned in response to committing misdemeanors. Service as a consequence is so pervasive in our society that local United Way agencies maintain a list of agencies that provide opportunities for people needing to complete court-ordered community service. So our requirement, instead of creating an internal desire to do service for others, was instead inadvertently associating school with crime and punishment in the minds of some of our students. This could reasonably be seen as a powerful motive for some of our students to resist the requirement.
Still, we knew that the act of service is important for students and the community, and we sought to find the right program to build this habit. We had been trying to provide technical solutions to a larger, cultural (or adaptive) problem. We needed a revolution.
Recently, through our partnership with Clare Blankemeyer of the Mayerson Foundation, Gamble teacher Josh Vogt took a revolutionary new approach to service at the school level and created a program he called “Gators Give Back.” While we still have some of the same tracking and participation issues – technical problems that we hope can be resolved – it is a brilliant answer to the larger, adaptive problem of addressing the desire to participate by creating a real relationship between the student and the work.
In Gators Give Back, the hours and hours of potentially disconnected service, possibly spent at dozens of agencies addressing a range of problems, or raking leaves and babysitting, are replaced by a single focus area chosen by the individual student.
The difference between the old program and Gators Give Back is stark, evident right from the first service activity through the finalization of their senior project. At each high school grade, the requirement is distinct from the old “counting 50 hours” expectation.
Ninth graders, instead of being asked to provide evidence of 50 hours of service, select one opportunity from a list provided by the Gators Give Back committee. They are encouraged to attend with a classmate. Then, responding to a prompt, they write a reflection on the experience, which they share with their classmates.
Tenth graders are asked to dig a little bit deeper. Again encouraged to do this in a group of two or three, they must attend the same agency two or three times, gaining an awareness of the social impact and importance of a particular topic. This time, instead of writing a personal reflection, students are asked to take on the role of advocate. In a letter to a public official, they are to explain what they have learned about their chosen agency and the need it meets, and then suggest ways the public official could assist in the area of need.
Our close partnership with the visionary Mayerson Foundation is an essential component of the 11th grade requirement, philanthropy. Our juniors take stewardship over $1,500 dollars provided by the Mayerson’s Magnified Giving program, created by local philanthropist Roger Grein. Over the course of the year, they investigate the work of the agencies they already know firsthand, reviewing grant proposals that are written directly to the students from competing agencies, and researching the needs of the agencies and the community. They invite the agencies to bring proposals to the group. Ultimately, using criteria they have devised, they award the $1,500 to a deserving agency in a triumphant end-of-the-year ceremony.
Noticeably absent from these first three years of the program are the reliance on counting hours, and the likelihood of students experiencing a range of different and uneven volunteering experiences. Instead, students in the Gators Give Back program find themselves serving and reflecting and learning about a particular area of concern, while thinking about multiple aspects of the service. Whereas a student in the former program might have spent hours folding clothes donated to a local shelter, a student today gets an experience with a trusted partner like Visionaries and Voices, then explains the problem to someone in a position to help, and steps into the role of the person in a position to help.
The Gators Give Back manual provides a list of possible agencies and areas of need, and provides templates and prompts for the writing, as well as key definitions for terms such as service learning and advocacy.
Students in our program gain a nuanced understanding of the relationship between societal needs, face to face assistance, and the agencies and systems that can either ameliorate or exacerbate the conditions that make the service necessary.
Senior year, the service project becomes more involved, intertwining with senior project in a segment aligned with the Youth for Justice curriculum. The work is far more involved, requiring several components, and deepening the student’s involvement in issues and solutions.
The senior must select a service topic that relates to their year-long project, often with a connection to their intended career or area of study in college. They must seek out a mentor who is knowledgeable in that area, who will guide them in learning about the topic and making suggestions for meaningful action. Then, importantly, students must begin to implement that solution. At this level, we initially had a minimum requirement of hours, as well as a minimum number of contacts with the mentor, but in practice we found that many of our students had so many contacts during the process that tracking them seemed artificial, and the requirement has fallen by the wayside.
Our seniors are responsible for tracking this progress, and for presenting the work as part of their senior project. This step helped address the accountability issue that existed when community service was a standalone hours-counting project. Enmeshed with their senior project, the work becomes more personal, and directly tied to graduation. Senior Project is a non-negotiable for graduation at Gamble.
I attended one successful project, a domestic violence awareness walk organized by Tariah Washington. Replete with catered food and special-order t-shirts bearing her slogan, the walk drew 50 people who marched and carried placards around our school neighborhood before eating and hearing the presentation Tariah prepared.
The Gators Give Back program is revolutionary because it tackles the kinds of problems that have been plaguing community service programs in high school since their inception. Students are not providing hours of disconnected service in multiple places. Instead they are building meaningful connections with issues of need in their own community. Now, hopefully, students find that service is inextricably linked to a required graduation component. They cannot hope to duck under the gaze of an individual tracking their hours, as the largest portion of the work is part of senior project. Now: impoverished students who may find themselves served by an agency can see a role for themselves beyond receiving or giving temporary help, instead working in the role of advocate and benefactor. This gives them practical skills that they can use in their own situation to make a sustainable change in their own family’s situation. Now: our program is not aligned with the mandatory, punitive community service programs in the justice system, counting hours until release.
Josh related to me a longer version of Bella’s story.
“Bella is one of those students whose life was literally changed by serving others. I’ll never forget that during the summer program, she was strongly advocating for eliminating spikes on concrete that some businesses put on the ground to discourage people experiencing homelessness from sleeping there. One of the StreetVibes vendors we were working with was actually sticking up for the businesses, but Bella did not back down. Another of the vendors raised his hand and said ‘No, man, I agree with her’ and the other vendors started clapping!”
Through service, advocacy, philanthropy, and mentored service learning, students in the Gators Give Back program transcend typical service. Instead they are empowered to act in an area that is meaningful for them.
As a school we have more come a long way, but there are still improvements we could make. This service paper could be incorporated as requirements in English and social studies classes. The letter they write in 10th grade meets a specific requirement for the ELA standards, and working on this in class for a grade would reinforce the requirement, improve the writing, and provide additional support for the student and the work in the school. Advocacy certainly meets high-level expectations in American History and Government classes.
This is how we are doing service at Gamble.
How can you promote service, advocacy, and philanthropy at your school? What have we missed?