How to Lead: More Questions Than Answers

When I first became a parent, I had so many questions and so much self-doubt.  Every decision seemed so important and so fraught with risk.  What exactly should I be doing when, and why?  So like any good student, I went looking for the definitive text book on parenting.

There is an overwhelming plethora of information out there.  Every bookstore seems to have an entire section devoted exclusively to books on how to parent.

“How exciting!” I initially thought. “The answers are in these books; I just have to read them — all of them.”

It did not take long to discover that while there were what some would call “answers” to be found in these books, these often directly conflicted with one another.

“Feed your baby on demand” vs. “Acclimate your baby to a feeding schedule.”

“Sleep with your baby” vs. “Never, ever sleep with your baby.”

“Practice ‘baby-wearing’” vs. “Put your baby down, so he gets used to entertaining himself.”

“Pick up a crying baby” vs. “Let your baby ‘cry it out.’”

The list goes on and on.  My quest for the “Baby Care Answer Key” proved to be both endlessly frustrating and futile.  It took me ten months to finally give up on finding it.  By then I was exhausted, but I settled on the following advice.

  • Listen to your baby
  • Trust your judgement
  • You know more than you think you do

Not a very precise set of guidelines, but my children are currently ages 17 and 13, and so far, it doesn’t appear that I have ruined them for life.  Can we agree that counts as some semblance of success?

Thankfully, I no longer have the raising of babies to worry about.  However, throughout my career as an educator, I have found myself consistently drawn toward leadership.  And when I reflect on my development as a leader, and how I have approached this growth, it eerily resembles what becoming a parent felt like.

As a team leader, I feel responsible for the success and health of my team in much the same way that I felt about raising my children.  And I feel the weight and worry of potential mistakes in much the same way as well.

Every decision seems so important and so fraught with risk.  What exactly should I be doing when, and why?  So like any good student, I have been looking for the definitive text book on leadership.

There is an overwhelming plethora of information out there.  Every bookstore seems to have an entire section devoted exclusively to books on how to lead.

“How exciting!” I initially thought. “The answers are in these books; I just have to read them — all of them.”

But, of course, just like books on parenting, books on leadership all seem to have different, and sometimes conflicting, advice.

Should leaders strive to hear all voices and work toward consensus, or identify clear goals and push others to achieve them?

Does effective team building happen through activities that help people like and trust one another, or through the struggle and conflict of putting challenging ideas on the table?

Do institutions function best when they are run as top-down or bottom-up?

The answer to all of these questions appears to be, “yes,” … depending on who you ask.

I have read many books about leadership, and each one seems to have its own take on the subject, leaving me with no clear answers.  However, these three books stand out as being the most influential for me.

  • Daring Greatly by Brené Brown
  • Conversational Capacity by Craig Weber
  • A Failure of Nerve by Edwin H. Friedman

They are presented here in the order in which I read them.  This is notable, as this mirrors the level of personal challenge that I found within them.

Brené Brown’s work was the most accessible for me, as in many ways she “speaks my language.”  Craig Weber pushed me to deeper self-reflection and to identifying my growth edge. Edwin Friedman challenged seemingly everything that I thought I knew to be true about good leadership, and in some ways turned it upside down.

It is not possible to fully explore the depth of each of these author’s work here; however, I have attempted to capture some of the most salient points.

Daring Greatly

In Daring Greatly, Brené Brown defines a leader as, “anyone who holds him- or her- self accountable for finding potential in people and processes.” (185) She indicates that this potential should be channeled into cultivating positive change, or what she dubs, “Minding the Gap.” She defines this as working toward reducing the difference between the Aspirational Values of an institution – those values that we espouse and that represent our best intentions – and the Practiced Values of an institution – how we actually think, behave, and feel.

Brown recognizes that working toward this alignment is a challenging, and potentially uncomfortable, task.  She notes that true leadership is scarce because being uncomfortable is a job requirement of the role.  She writes, “If you’re not uncomfortable in your work as a leader, it’s almost certain you’re not reaching your potential as a leader.” (211)

Fortunately, although the work may be uncomfortable, Brown provides some insights into how to support teams in the challenges of growth and learning.  She describes this as an inherently vulnerable process, as to learn and grow, one must be willing to risk failure.  She also examines the critical role of constructive feedback, noting that people are “desperate” for feedback that inspires growth and engagement. (198)

Accepting feedback, growing, learning, and changing are all risky business.  In order for people to be willing to take on these risks, they must be supported by healthy organizations.

Brown describes healthy organizational cultures as places where:

  • Empathy is a valued asset
  • Accountability is an expectation rather than an exception
  • The need for belonging is not used as leverage and social control

In the absence of this type of safe space, people will disengage in order to protect themselves – they will stop showing up, stop contributing, and stop caring.  This disengagement is a form of institutional crisis.  To support leaders in avoiding this scenario, Brown provides this “Leadership Manifesto” for guidance.

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Conversational Capacity

In Conversational Capacity,  (which I’ve written about previously here) Craig Weber agrees with Brown’s assertion that leadership requires discomfort.  He, too, focuses on the importance of managing the human side of teams, but he defines the most critical aspect of this as the development of what he calls conversational capacity.  He defines this as “the ability to have open, balanced, nondefensive dialogue about tough subjects and in challenging circumstances.” (15)

From his perspective, a healthy institutional culture “embraces productive conflict and a willingness to disagree, publicly and rigorously,” and is “strong enough to withstand clashing viewpoints and challenging questions.” (19)  Weber asserts that it is only through the intentional cultivation of conversational capacity that this can occur, and it is the leader’s responsibility to develop this within the team.

Weber identifies a continuum of responses to challenges, such that minimizing (or low candor) behaviors exist at one end of this spectrum while winning (or low curiosity) behaviors exist at the other.  He indicates that the way to develop conversational capacity, or work toward the “sweet spot” found in the center of the continuum, is to work against one’s natural tendency to “minimize” or to “win” in the face of challenging issues.

He notes that when conversational capacity is not well-developed:

  • We remain silent when we should speak up
  • We argue when we should cooperate
  • We downplay our concerns when we should blurt them out (27)

Like Brown, Weber notes that in the absence of conversational capacity, we are risking institutional crisis.

To examine the various ways this crisis can appear, Jack synthesized Weber’s “sweet spot” continuum with the related Heat-Light balance described in Meeting Wise  by Boudett and City (which Jack has previously written about here).

Jack created this graphic which examines the ways in which being unbalanced relative to minimizing, winning, heat, and chill can lead to passive-aggression, direct aggression, sabotage, and shut down – each of which are damaging to institutions and pull teams out of the “sweet spot” or the “light” in which effective and positive change can occur.

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A Failure of Nerve

Although both Brown and Weber note the importance of leadership for the health of an institution, neither writes in as strong language about this as Friedman does in A Failure of Nerve (which Jack has previously written about here.)

Friedman asserts that when institutions are not functioning well, it is always due to a failure of nerve among its leaders.(2) He describes this “nerve” as self-differentiation –  or having clarity about one’s own goals, as demonstrated through a focus on strength rather than pathology, challenge rather than comfort, and taking definitive stands rather than seeking consensus.

He boldly claims that leaders must not be “peace-mongers,” who attempt to “regulate their institutions through love, insight, role-modeling, inculcation of values, and striving for consensus.”(12)  He states that working toward consensus leads to sandbagging and sabotage by team members who are not aligned with the leader’s identified goals.

In accordance with this, he suggests that the way to change institutions is to work with the motivated members of that institution rather than focusing on the recalcitrant members.  He indicates that by orienting one’s focus toward those who are not in alignment with the institution’s mission and goals, and attempting to get them on board through seeking compromise and consensus, the institution itself becomes weaker.

Friedman suggests that the way to strength is to consistently engage members of an institutional community who operate in alignment with the institution’s mission and goals. By shifting to a focus on strength, rather than weakness, recalcitrant members who want to remain a part of the institution have to adapt to the established community, rather than requiring the institution to adjust to the expectations of the recalcitrant members.

Friedman believes that a lack of self-differentiation among leadership, or in other words confusion around the goals, culture, and expectations of an institution, leads to systemic anxiety.  And that this anxiety causes reactivity – both in terms of intense emotionality and dogged passivity – among its members.

Counter to the common understanding of job stress, Friedman believes that it is not unrelieved hard work that is the root cause of burnout, but rather it is chronic, systemic anxiety that is to blame.

Once again, he identifies self-differentiation of leadership as the antidote for chronic anxiety.  He calls on leaders to be both present and non-anxious relative to the challenges of their institutions.  Noting that while it is easy to be non-present and non-anxious, or conversely, present and anxious, in the face of difficulty, he instead prescribes that leaders become “transformers,” who allow the current of adversity to run through them without getting zapped.  They reduce the anxiety of the institution by the nature of their own presence, by their self-differentiation, as defined above.

Friedman explores leadership through a lens that at first glance seems different from anyone else.  However, like Weber, he identifies continuums and the need to find the center between the extremes, and like Brown, he focuses on the importance of establishing a safe, institutional space, which he defines as one that is resistant to anxiety.

Friedman prescribes perhaps the most difficult solution, indicating that self-differentiation is demonstrated through finding the balance between these ten indicators or “tensions” during times of institutional crisis.

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Synthesis

Each of the above texts focuses on the inherent challenges of leadership and the difficulty of leading well.  Each delineates the risks to an institution in the absence of effective leadership.  Each indicates that the difference between success and failure lies in the hands of an institution’s leaders.  That is a heavy responsibility to bear.

Brown charges leaders with gently guiding others to “dare greatly.” Weber challenges leaders to work to build “conversational capacity” in themselves and others.  And Friedman insists that leaders tackle the difficulty of “self-differentiation.”

While none of these books provided me with the clear, definitive, and, dare I say, easy, answers that I have been seeking, each elucidates pitfalls of leadership and provides suggested remedies.  Each has informed the way in which I lead.

Like in parenting, I have come to the devastating conclusion that there are no simple solutions, and that there’s no singular right way.

Like in parenting, I’ve come to believe that the following is true:

  • Listen to your team (Weber)
  • Trust your judgement (Friedman)
  • You know more than you think you do (Brown)

So based on that, this summer I spent some time constructing my own model of what I believe to be the fundamental components of good leadership. In my model, each of the bottom layers serves as the foundation for the ones above it, and each is a prerequisite for the success of the subsequent layers.

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I’d like to assert that if these six components are implemented with fidelity, leadership will be easy and all will be well within an institution.  Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s the case.

As Jack frequently reminds me, “We work with people, and people are messy.”  Every team has its own unique set of strengths, challenges, and needs.  Every situation is different, and requires a unique response.  Although I desperately long for the formula that says, “If x happens, then do y,” and to have that formula elicit a successful outcome every time, this is a utopian ideal that is not rooted in reality.

Leadership is hard, and I have become convinced that it is more about process than it is about product.  So I will continue reading books, asking question, mulling things over, and muddling through the messy morass of team development and institutional health.  Currently, I have more questions than answers; perhaps someday, the angel of experience will bless me with more answers than questions.

 

 

 

You Never Know Where You Will Find Angels

This post was originally published on 9/19/16; however it reflects the commonality of our fall camp experience each year.  This year our camping trip takes place the weeks of 8/28 and 9/5.  In order for every student to participate, we are actively seeking donations for student scholarships.  If you are interested in helping, please contact me at taylokr@cps-k12.org

 

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

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

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

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

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Back to School: The Prepared Environment

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year …”

If, when you hear this you begin singing, “with the kids jingle belling and everyone telling you be of good cheer,” then you are not a teacher.

Staples has ruined this traditional Christmas carol for teachers forever.  I can nearly guarantee that every teacher hears the next line as “They’re going back!”

Back to School that is.

Ahhh, back to school.  A time of year fraught with emotion for students and teachers alike.  Here in Ohio, the back to school advertising frenzy begins on July 5th.  Yes, July 5th – the day after Independence Day.

We’re not even quite halfway through summer vacation when we are told to start gearing up for the return to school.

This is particularly cruel as I’m not sure a teacher exists who doesn’t experience back to school nightmares.  These are quintessential anxiety dreams that generally involve being late to class or unprepared – no lesson plan, no attendance list, no materials, etc.  In the really terrifying versions of these nightmares, the teacher is also naked – talk about waking up in a cold sweat!

Back to School is such a tumultuous time of year.  Although many decades have transpired since the long summer days of my childhood, they still evoke powerful memories, and when I think of the end of summer, the loss I feel is reminiscent of those summers:

Long afternoons that melted into evenings where it stayed light until 9:30 — which was about when our parents started calling us to come inside,

Carefree summer days when we held contests to see who could stand barefoot on the hot asphalt the longest,

Evenings spent catching lightning bugs in a jar that we kept by our bedsides overnight,

Even the air was redolent with exuberance —  full of the sounds of cicadas by day and crickets by night.

This romanticization is perhaps equaled only by my powerful memories of the first days of school each fall:

The smell of fresh floor wax that seems to be the same in school buildings everywhere,

The anxiety and excitement of meeting a new teacher and entering a new classroom,

The thrill of a full set of brand-new school supplies,

The joy of seeing your name carefully written on a sticker on your desk, perhaps accompanied by a number line whose ends had not yet started to curl up.

That classroom was waiting for you.  Waiting expectantly full of optimism and hope of a new beginning, a fresh start.

It was these nostalgic first day of school images that flashed through my mind when, this summer, I came across these words written on a Facebook page of a teacher group I belong to:

“Has anyone done ‘work to rule’ at the start of school?  I’m the VP of our union.  Need ideas to motivate elementary teachers to not set up classrooms before school starts.  Looking for ideas of how to survive the first day in boxes, success stories or ways to start school with a blank slate.”

“Work to rule,” meaning only do what is explicitly stated in the contract – nothing more.

“Work to rule,” meaning that if you aren’t directly paid for time spent setting up your classroom, then don’t set it up.

I have always been a fiercely proud union member.  I believe in the importance of unions, and have served in various union roles throughout my career.  But this statement left me feeling sad and embarrassed and disappointed all at once.

To be fair, the person who posted this does not belong to my local union and doesn’t even live in my state.  I know that there are teachers elsewhere who are struggling with low wages and excessive requirements that are far beyond anything that I have ever had to deal with.  I am slow to judge because there may be extenuating circumstances, of which I am unaware, that require such drastic action.

What bothered me perhaps more than the post itself was that within just a few hours, this statement had 141 comments from teachers all around the country, most of which were supportive of this strategy.

I simply can’t get past my mental image of the children who walk into a classroom that hasn’t been prepared.  A classroom where materials are still in boxes.  A classroom that is simply not ready for the students’ arrival.

A classroom like that cannot possibly evoke the expectant hope and optimism that I remember so vividly from my own days as a student.

Not only does this lack of a prepared environment do the students a disservice, it does a terrible disservice to the teacher of that classroom as well, for an unstructured, unwelcoming start of the school year bodes ill for the months that follow.

Starting the school year off on the right foot is critically important, and having a well-prepared classroom environment is a major contributing factor for this.  Every classroom is unique in how it is set up, and there are many right ways.  Each teacher spends countless hours getting it just the way he or she wants it, with every item carefully in place prior to the ringing of that bell that marks the initiation of a new school year.

There is reason to believe that this intentional and thoughtful classroom design has significant benefits.  A recent study funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council found that 16% of the positive or negative variations in student learning outcomes could be attributed to the physical characteristics of the classroom.[1]  Of this, 25% of these achievement differences were attributed to individualization and flexibility in the environment, and another 25% was linked to an appropriate level of stimulation (complexity and color) in the classroom.[2]  This is good news as these are elements of the classroom that are completely within a teacher’s control.

The results of this study indicate that students learn better in classrooms where there are a variety of available learning spaces and where student influence is observable through displays of work and student-created decorative elements.[3]

Additionally visual stimulation should be neither too high nor too low.  Décor should be limited to approximately 50-75% of wall space.  Calming background colors with the use of complementary or bright colors as accents was found to be most effective.[4]

Creating a classroom best-designed for learning is a relatively simple and effective way to make teaching a little bit easier.  The short-term investment of time, effort, and money has long-term gains.

Whether your school year is yet to begin or whether you have already done most of the heavy lifting of classroom preparation, it is important to examine the design of your classroom to ensure that it best meets your needs and those of your students.

And, yes, I know that for many of us our rooms are overcrowded, our furnishings shoddy, and the extra touches that create a welcoming atmosphere typically must be paid for out of our own pockets.

Is this fair?  No, of course not.  But it is the reality for many, perhaps most, of us.  Consider the number of hours each day that you and your students will spend in your classroom.  Generally, this amounts to about 50% of one’s waking hours.  Making that space more pleasant is worth it for all parties involved.

As part of my research for this post, I perused the book What’s in Your Space:  5 Steps for Better School and Classroom Design.  It’s a drool-worthy book – sharing images of a high-end, high-tech, student-centered new construction.

The pictures in that book look nothing like what exists in most school buildings.

As a result, I initially set the book aside as an impossible ideal, but then I returned to it, turning directly to the section titled, “Find Ways to Make This Shift Even When Budgets are Tight.”

I found this important message, “Only a handful of schools in the world have an unlimited budget with which to redesign learning space.  Educators with small budgets can begin with one corner of a classroom.”[5]

Consider your classroom.  Which corner do you want to start with?

Spend some time mentally re-visiting how last year went.  Is there an area in your room that felt congested?  Or cluttered?  A space in which students tended to be off-task or at loose ends?  Or perhaps an area that students intentionally sought out for silent work or regrouping that you would like to make more inviting.

Begin with one of these spaces.

Consider adding lamps, plants, a rug, or different seating options.  If routines or procedures were an issue, think about what you can design to help make this more structured.

There are infinite ways to make classrooms more inviting, more comfortable, or more functional.  Here are a few of my favorites provide by teachers at Gamble Montessori to help you get the creative juices flowing.

(Tremendous thanks to Krista Mertens, Olivia Schafer, Tori Pinciotti, and Beau Wheatley for inviting me into their classrooms at Gamble and allowing me to take photographs of their beautifully designed spaces.)

A place for everything and everything in its place

If clutter or organization is a concern in your classroom, consider purchasing simple containers and labeling them.

A student supply center. This teacher has two sets of these –each one assigned for use by 4 tables of students.

 

A simple way to provide easy access to colored pencils. A student job can be ensuring correct placement of pencils at the end of each day.

 

Materials to support classroom procedures

If you had procedures, such as tardiness protocols or classroom jobs that didn’t work so well last year, think about materials you could design that would better support and reinforce your expectations.

A structure for documenting, problem-solving, and holding students accountable for being tardy to class.

 

Classroom jobs support students in being responsible for care of the environment. Clear routines and procedures are essential for this to function well.

 

Morning meeting structures to build community and promote classroom cohesion

If you struggled to develop a positive classroom culture, you may benefit from adding a well-structured daily or weekly meeting to your routines.

A beautifully set morning meeting table includes all necessary supplies.

 

Clearly defined morning meeting leadership roles with individual clipboards for ease of use.

 

Nontraditional student work areas

If you found that students struggled with focus and engagement, consider creating student-friendly work spaces that may look very different from the standard desks and chairs.

The creation of beautiful reading nooks emphasizes the joy that can be found in reading for pleasure.

 

Here is a different type of reading corner. In both photos, notice the lighting elements.

 

Many students like the option of working on the floor as it allows them greater movement and more choices of position.

 

A standard table can easily be converted to a floor work space by removing a portion of the legs.

 

Students may discover work spaces that you had never even considered!

 

There are innumerable ways to design a beautiful and functional prepared space for student learning.  However, to do so takes significant time.  Ideally, teachers would get paid for this time; the reality is that few of us do.

So, yes, advocate for more paid time to prepare your classroom.  Advocate for professional development days to be moved to later in the year to allow for more time for classroom set up in the critical days just before the start of the year.  Advocate for getting reimbursed for the materials you have to purchase out of pocket to beautify your space.  (That $250 federal income tax credit doesn’t go very far!)

But to leave your classroom unprepared for the arrival of students on that first day is a set up for failure.  Students are already worried and anxious about the changes that lie ahead.  Quite frankly, so are most teachers.  It helps everyone to begin that pivotal day in a space that reflects readiness of the exciting journey that you and your class are about to embark upon together.

Your students are worth it.  So are you.

 

[1] Lynch, Matthew. “Study Finds That Well-Designed Classrooms Boost Student Success.” The Edvocate. May 10, 2016. Accessed August 02, 2017. http://www.theedadvocate.org/study-finds-that-well-designed-classrooms-boost-student-success/.

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] Carter, Dwight, Gary Sebach, and Mark White.What’s In Your Space?Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2016.

 

7 Gateways: The Hunger for Joy and Delight

originally published 11/14/16; re-published with edits 7/17/17

by Krista Taylor

Jake fist-pumped the air with a gigantic smile plastered across his face, as he loudly and repeatedly declared victory. To the casual observer, this may have looked like “excessive celebration,” but our students were delighted by Jake’s jubilant behavior. Jake is a student with autism, and he had just been wildly successful at one of our most popular games.

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What is this “Montessori Thing” and Secondary Montessori

*This post was originally published as two separate posts in January of 2016.  Because both posts address the origins and philosophy of Montessori practice, we wanted to republish them together.

 Anyone connected to education today has heard the following espoused as best practices:

  • Project-Based Learning
  • Differentiated Instruction
  • Social-Emotional Learning
  • Use of Manipulatives and Hands-On Activities
  • Real-World Experiences
  • Rigor
  • High Expectations

These are cutting-age, modern instructional practices, right?

Wrong.

Maria Montessori first began developing and implementing these techniques in the early 20th century.

Maria Montessori

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How Do You Measure a Year?

By Krista Taylor

It happens every year, so one would think I would be used to it by now.  The school-year seems to move along, as slow as molasses, at times feeling somewhat interminable. And then, suddenly, it’s over. This catches me entirely off-guard.  And I’m not ready.

The curriculum has been taught, the tests have been administered, the paperwork is complete, the culminating projects are finished, and yet I am still not ready.

I’m not ready to let them go.  I’m not ready to say good-bye.

I am not ready to have my 8th graders move on to high school. And even though my 7th graders will return to me next year, I’m not ready to spend 12 weeks apart from them.

I know that sounds ridiculous.  It probably is ridiculous. But I don’t transition well.  Every year it takes me a week or longer after the end of the school year to complete the check-out process that somehow every other teacher manages to get done by the last day.  But I’m not ready.

However, this year, exactly one week before the end of the year, I looked around the circle at the faces of my students during morning meeting, and I suddenly realized that whether or not I was ready, my students were.

The seventh graders, who had entered our building in the fall looking for all the world like little lost lambs, were ready to assume the mantle of leadership.

And the eighth graders had become so strong, self-assured, and independent that they were ready to tackle the new demands and challenges of high school.

How had this leadership emerged?  It felt abrupt when I suddenly saw it staring back at me in black and white during that morning meeting, but I knew that it wasn’t.  I knew that their leadership had been cultivated and nurtured over time and through great dedication and diligence.  But how?  What exactly were the critical components that allowed that transformation to happen?

As I tend to do, when I saw them with new eyes that morning, I acknowledged it.  I told my 7th graders that I had just realized that they were ready – ready to fill the 8th graders’ shoes, ready to lead our community next year.  And I asked them how they had learned to do this.  Their response did not surprise me, but it did delight me.  They said, “The eighth graders taught us.”

And, of course, that is how it had happened.  This is peer transmission of culture, and it is a powerful thing.

Being social and engaging in peer relationships is the primary motivating force of the adolescent.  As a result, they can teach each other far more powerfully than any lesson presented by an adult.  This is why peer pressure is such a powerful phenomenon.

Teen-agers desperately want to fit in, to belong.  They crave this social inclusion, and while adults often fear its power to lead children astray, peer pressure can be positively channeled to guide students toward valorization as well.

“Teens join peer groups in an attempt to differentiate themselves from their families and grow more independent … When most people think of the phrase ‘peer pressure,’ images of underage teens participating in destructive behavior spring to mind. But most people overlook positive examples of peer pressure, including situations where friends push teens to grow in beneficial ways.”[1]

Students can reach each other more deeply than any adult ever could.  Who better to teach them how to be leaders than their peers?  This is the rich benefit of multi-age grouping in a classroom.  Older students model expectations for younger students, and this results in powerful learning.

Multi-age groupings, like those seen in Montessori classrooms among others, readily allow the transmission of classroom culture to occur through peer relationships.  And my students’ recognition of this was what I found so remarkable on that day when I looked around morning meeting and suddenly recognized their transformation.

Multi-age classrooms are a fundamental component of the Montessori model, but this philosophy is beginning to reach traditional education as well.  A recent article in The Atlantic noted that, “Multiage education … puts learners at the center, socially and academically. On the social side, younger children look for guidance to older students who know the ropes, while the older students in the classroom organically learn about mentoring, leadership, and collaboration.”[2]

This is exactly how it happens.

This mentoring, leadership, and collaboration is very intentionally constructed in the Montessori middle school classroom.  At the beginning of the year, the eighth graders are asked to take on all the leadership roles.  They are expected to model what positive leadership looks like in our classrooms.  We overtly identify and discuss this – honoring the role of the eighth grade leaders. We also note that over the course of the year, the seventh graders will be provided with increasing opportunities to fulfill these duties, so that by the following year, they will be prepared to do the modeling for incoming students.

Initially, however, the eighth graders are given all the classroom leadership responsibilities such as: running morning meeting, helping new students manage a checklist of assignments, and reinforcing behavioral expectations.

Additionally, the language of leadership pervades our discussions with students. The poem “Great Leaders” by Meiji Stewart is displayed in each of our classrooms, and we use this as a tool to identify what leadership is.  On a near daily basis, we say things like, “I need a couple of leaders,” “Where are my leaders?” “Can I get some leader volunteers?” or “It doesn’t matter where we are, we always behave like leaders.” Leadership is always referenced as an expectation for all, not just a quality that a few motivated students will demonstrate.

This is why student reinforcement is so critical. Every classroom has students who are internally motivated to lead and are responsive to teacher mentoring. Sometimes we call these students the “good kids” or “the bright ones” or “teachers’ pets.” A shift in classroom climate occurs, however, when all students are expected to demonstrate leadership, and I suspect that this can only be accomplished through positive peer pressure.

At Gamble, peer leadership modeling begins in earnest with the closing ceremony at fall camp.  Camp happens early in the school year — within the first three weeks.  The 7th graders are brand new to us, and their official initiation to the community occurs on the final night of the fall camping experience.

This ceremony is entirely planned by the eighth graders.  In our community, it never fails that year after year, the eighth graders want to initiate the seventh graders by identifying and labeling their character strengths.  This practice was begun with our first group of students, and each year it is handed down as tradition.  This is a powerful example of peer transmission of culture.

So, invariably, just days before camp, a large group of eighth graders spend their lunchtime in my room frantically preparing certificates with individual names and character strength labels.

Listening to them discuss what they have observed in their seventh grade peers is so sweet.  It sounds something like this:

“What about Dahlia, what’s her strength?”

“She’s talkative.”

“Oh yeah, she is.  But that sounds kind of bad.  How can we make it good?”

“I don’t know.  Outgoing?”

“Yeah, that’s good.  What about Ramon?”

“Ramon, I don’t know.  He’s so quiet.  I hardly even notice him.  Ms. Taylor, what is Ramon’s character strength?”

“Hmmmmm … sounds like you need to observe him a little more.  Do you think you can do that and then come back tomorrow and have a character strength for him?”

“Yeah, we can do that.”

This work of identifying character strengths requires them to do multiple things.   They must review the various character strengths, intentionally observe their new classmates, and see them in a positive light.  What an incredible way to begin leading a group of new students.

This type of leadership is a responsibility, an expectation, and an obligation, but it is also so much more.  Because it is done by students year after year, it is seen as an honor, as something to be earned and entrusted with.

When treated this way, leadership becomes a somewhat revered role.  I believe this is why I typically have so many students willing to take on leadership tasks, even when they know that it usually involves additional work. All I have to do is ask, “I need a couple of leader volunteers.  Who’s willing to help?”  And every time, many, many hands go up.  It is an honor to be called on to complete these tasks, and the work is viewed not as a menial job, but as a responsibility to be assumed for the good of the group.

I giggled this spring upon overhearing the following exchange between two young ladies.  We were outside taking a break from the stressors of standardized testing, and Aaliyah began picking up pieces of trash.  Mi’Neasia looked at her and said, “What are you doing that for?”  Aaliyah’s response made me so proud.  “You know Ms. Taylor’s going to make us do it in a minute, so we might as well get started.”

Let’s be clear, no one likes to pick up trash.  But Aaliyah knew that “Leaving a Place Better Than We Found It” was part of what we always did as leaders, and she viewed it as an obligation.  She took the initiative before being asked, and then transmitted this expectation to a peer.

I am certain that if I, as the teacher, solely dictated the requirement of completing these types of extra jobs, I would be met with complaining and resistance, but when peers model diligent completion of the work, the entire experience shifts positively.

Of course, leadership doesn’t develop exclusively as a result of peer modeling.  There must also be opportunities for leadership development built into the curriculum, but I do not believe that we would get nearly the same results without the benefit of students leading the way.

And like all growth, leadership doesn’t develop in one neatly-graphable, continuous line, and it isn’t developed overnight, or even over a few weeks. Although I was startled by my sudden recognition during morning meeting that the students sitting before me had become leaders, there was really nothing sudden about it. My students had been working on leadership all year, and it was the consistent guidance and direction of their eighth grade peers that had steered them toward that readiness. They recognized this and were able to articulate it.

Each year, while the eighth graders are in Pigeon Key, Florida engaged in an intensive marine biology study that serves as our culminating middle school experience, the seventh graders prepare a celebration to honor them.  It is a bit of a mirror image of the fall camp ceremony, and serves to pass the torch of leadership.

This year, as part of the ceremony they planned, they wrote this:

“Dear 8th graders,  It’s been a long year with everyone.  A lot of things have changed with improved grades, behavior, and leadership skills.  It’s been a big transition throughout the year.  Everyone has shown growth tremendously, and I would like to thank the 8th graders for showing me the path to be an 8th grade leader.  Everyone will be missed.”

And this.

“I know not only 7th graders improved, but you did as well.  You were once in the same position as us, now look where you’re at.  You were such a big help to us because you taught us how to be the 8th grade leaders you are today.  We will miss every, single one of you, and hopefully you’ll miss us too.  Most importantly, as you go to the 9th grade, just remember that you’ll always be UL leaders.  P.S. Try not to make Ms. Taylor too emotional when you leave.”

They were ready to move on, and they recognized this in themselves, and in each other.

Just one week after that culminating moment, we said good-bye.  The seventh graders headed off into another long summer break, and the eighth graders did the same, prepared to engage in an entirely different academic adventure upon their return.

They had come so far, and, while they often tease me about being “too emotional,” I know that they, too, felt the bittersweet pang of farewell. For a full ten minutes after the bell rang on that last day of school, my teaching partners and I had students clustered around us for hugs and final words.

Lisa, who ended the year with beautiful grades, threw her arms around me, as I whispered in her ear, “You’ve worked so hard. Remember that first quarter conference when you had to tell your mom that you were failing? Just look at you now!” She burst into tears and hugged me even tighter.

Derek, an 8th grader, who was incredibly immature when he arrived at Gamble and who spent the better part of a year being the class clown, stood tall and gave me a tight hug, as he said proudly and confidently, “You know I’m gonna miss you next year in the 9th grade.”

And Astrid, a painfully shy 7th grader who has finally begun to find her place and her voice in our community. As is her way, she waited patiently and silently for her hug until all the more boisterous students had gotten a turn. I looked into her eyes, and saw such longing for recognition there. I told her what I know to be true: “You will be such a powerful leader for our new students next year. You know all the quiet ones? The ones who are so afraid to come to high school? You’re in charge of them next year, okay?” She silently nodded as her eyes filled with tears, and she hugged me good-bye.

And even Andrew, who had a very difficult year and will be repeating the seventh grade, waited for his hug, and then shoved a crumpled post-it note in my hand saying gruffly, “Read that.” It said, “Thanks for helping me do better and have grit. I will miss you these three months.”

I was almost certainly “too emotional” when they left.  Because I was not ready.  But they were. They were ready to move on to the next level of challenge, and that is what matters. That is how you measure a year.

 

[1] “Peer Pressure.”Teenagers and Peer Pressure – Causes and Effects. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 May 2017.

 

[2] Miller, Stuart. “Inside a Multiage Classroom.”The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 09 May 2017. Web. 27 May 2017.

 

The Seven Gateways: The Longing for Silence and Solitude

It was the witching hour at fall camp. That tricky time that happens each day as the afternoon activity wraps up, dinner preparation must begin, and the canoeing group, which necessarily includes the bulk of teachers and chaperones, hasn’t yet returned to the campground. What this all means is too many wound-up students and not enough adult hands to go around.

I had just led our afternoon activity of a serious Olympic Games competition. This consisted of multiple activities such as wheelbarrow races, leapfrog races, football tosses, and one-legged stands. You know, all the famous Olympic sports.

 

Hilarity had ensued as student less-than-gracefully leap-frogged over each other and attempted to distract each other from standing stock-still on one leg for an unfathomable amount of time. The event culminated in a raucous Olympic medal ceremony replete with extremely off-key anthem singing.

And, this year, there had been a little thunder thrown in for good measure – just to help keep everyone calm.

And thus the witching hour began with 25 hyped-up adolescents and me. I needed to get them settled and working on their packets, so I could begin overseeing dinner crew, but I wasn’t at all sure how I was going to manage the transition.

I must have felt really desperate because I threw all caution to the wind and tried something new – all the while being absolutely certain that there was no way it would work.

I put on my best serious and quiet “Montessori voice” — not an easy feat on the third day of camp right after the Olympic games and just before an impending thunderstorm – and I said, “Do you guys remember last week when I told you about The Silence Game?”

Maria Montessori designed The Silence Game in her work with young children. She asked the children to be quiet, to “create silence,” and then she waited across the room from them and called their names individually in a barely audible voice. When a child heard his name called, he would walk across the room as quietly as possible and sit down silently.

I had introduced this concept to my students the previous week as the foundation of the practice of solo time that we use in the Montessori adolescent classroom. So in the controlled chaos of the moments just following our Olympic games, I told my students that we were going to play this game. I asked them to create silence, and when I tapped them on the shoulder they were to silently walk over to the pavilion area, have a seat, and begin working on their assignment packets.

I really did not think it was going to work.

But it did. This cluster of pubescent energy that differed little from a litter of puppies, closed their eyes and stilled. As I quietly moved among them, tapping them on the shoulder, they remained silent and practically floated, one at a time, toward the pavilion.

I very nearly giggled in my astonishment at the game’s success. But I shouldn’t have been so surprised.

In The Soul of Education, Rachel Kessler identifies the yearning of silence and solitude as one of the seven gateways to the adolescent soul.

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

Montessori used The Silence Game to help young children develop focus and concentration as she asked them to remain silent for gradually longer increments of time.

In the busyness and constant engagement of today’s world, children need this opportunity to practice silence even more than they did during Montessori’s time. A recent study conducted by Microsoft found that the average human attention span has decreased from twelve seconds to eight seconds. To put this into perspective, the attention span of a goldfish is nine seconds. [1]

We live in a world where we are constantly bombarded with stimuli such that, for many of us, silence and stillness are uncomfortable. We are easily bored and seek out the next engaging thing, often through ready access to mobile devices.

And yet there is plenty of evidence that our brains need this silence and solitude. Spending time in silence:

  • Relieves stress and tension
  • Replenishes mental resources
  • Allows the brain to access its default mode leading to deep and creative thinking
  • Helps regenerate brain cells [2]

Classrooms are busy places. There is little time or opportunity to rest, and yet neuroscience is discovering that the rewards of silence are great.

In the secondary Montessori classroom, Kessler’s concept of an adolescent longing for silence and solitude is combined with Montessori’s philosophy that the child can be taught to focus by being asked to practice silence for increasing periods of time. We call this work “solo time.”

Solo time consists of a period of time lasting anywhere from ten minutes to forty-five minutes. Some schools practice solo time daily; other schools do it once a week. During solo time, students must engage in a silent, independent activity. Choices often include coloring, journaling, reading, sketching, puzzles, Play-Doh, Legos or other building material, or just sitting in meditative silence.

 

 

 

When the concept is first introduced, many students take immediate joy in participating in solo time, but quite a few students, and even some adults, actively dislike it. They find it hard to remain still, they are bored, and they are drawn to whisper to their peers, move around the classroom, or otherwise meet their need for greater stimulation. At the beginning of the year, after each of the first few times we “do solo,” we discuss, as a class, what this experience was like. Many students describe how challenging it is for them to be still and to refrain from interaction with others. Some require behavioral redirection to be able to comply with these seemingly simple expectations.

Over time, however, almost all students develop enjoyment for this quiet time.

Solo time is especially powerful when it is conducted outside. Sometimes, we are able to do this on school grounds; however, we also hold outdoor solo time during our overnight field experiences.   Our most profound of these experiences is the 8th grade culminating trip to Pigeon Key, Florida. Solo time on Pigeon Key is especially transcendent because it feels so remote from “the real world,” and thus really provides the opportunity for deep silence and solitude. Students are powerfully affected by experiencing solo time in this setting, and they beg to do it more often and for longer periods of time.

 

Last year after the solo time on the first night on the island, Cavin wrote this in his journal.

“The solo time was literally the best solo time I’ve ever had. Like at first I was worried but then something helped me out, and I could really focus. It’s like you never notice how beautiful everything is with all the negativity around America and humanity. During the solo time I got to see nautical beauty and worry about nothing. It was like the first time I have been able to fully not worry about anything. It was pretty cool too, like I had wanted there to be more time.”

His words are especially profound because he had been battling depression all year, and had spent some time in the hospital due to suicidal ideation. What greater gift could we give him then an opportunity, even if just for a few minutes, “to worry about nothing?”

Solo time is just one way of embedding a practice of silence and solitude into the classroom.

It is all too easy to get caught up in all the things that need to be done in the limited time we are with our students. It doesn’t seem to matter whether we have five hours each day or just a single fifty-minute bell, the time is never enough. It’s hard to consider giving up any of this precious time to something as simple as silence.

And in the adolescent classroom, it can be equally hard to imagine that our students are actually going to cooperate in this. After all, the need for socialization is one of the critical hallmarks of the adolescent being. It is embedded in their very nature to interact nearly constantly with each other.

However, Kessler describes this gateway as a longing for silence and solitude. While on the surface, it may not be something students prioritize, they have a deep need for it.

In a similar vein, classroom mindfulness practices are growing and gaining national attention. A number of programs, such as Mindful Schools and CARE (Cultivating Awareness and Resilience for Educators) have sprung up both as a means to train teachers to bring these practices into the classroom, and as a strategy to support teachers in coping with the stressors and demands of their job.

Public schools in Baltimore, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and elsewherehave implemented the use of mindfulness both as a daily practice and as a way to help students calm down when they are engaged in conflict or misbehavior.

These programs are seeing powerful outcomes related to both reduced discipline and increased achievement. While there has not been a tremendous amount of research conducted on the impact of meditation on the developing brain, initial studies demonstrate some important benefits.

  • Increased attention
  • Improved grades
  • Better attendance
  • Reduced anxiety
  • Greater self-control
  • Enhanced social-emotional skills[3]

Mindfulness practices come at little to no cost, seem to have no negative impact, and have the potential for significant positive gains. Mindfulness is gaining ground as a structure that may be of great benefit to schools, teachers, and students, but why hasn’t this ancient concept been adopted sooner and more quickly in classrooms around the country?

I can only try and answer that question based on my own experience. I have been trained in bringing mindfulness practices into the classroom three times. Yes, I said three times. The first time I received this training was in 1999. Right. Eighteen years ago. I later completed two different mindfulness programs, in 2014 and in 2016, respectively. And yet I still have not implemented a mindfulness practice in my classroom.

Why not?

Because it’s scary.

Imagine telling 30 adolescents to close their eyes, sit silently, and focus on their breath. Okay, admittedly, it doesn’t sound so scary when it’s written out like that, but in the moment it feels like the critical balance between control and chaos could be tipped at any moment. All it would take is for one student to say something goofy, or make a weird noise, or expose the practice as a sham, and suddenly, the whole class would be disrupted, and you would spend the remainder of the time trying to regain control of the group.

This is every teacher’s nightmare, but I have to admit I’ve never had this happen.

Each time I’ve dabbled in meditation in the classroom, it’s been incredibly well-received by students. Some students really appreciate it, and even ask for it. Most tolerate it without complaint, and none has ever been disruptive.

And yet, I still don’t have a developed mindfulness practice. #teachergoals2018

For now, we do solo time every week, and more frequently when we are on multi-day field experiences.

If, like me, you don’t feel ready to jump full-force onto the mindfulness bandwagon, there are many other ways, of bringing silent reflection into the classroom – including the establishment of a structured solo time.

CARE recommends implementing the following strategies as a way to get started:

  • Calmer Transitions
  • Take 5
  • Use of a “Quiet Corner” or “Peace Corner.”
  • Mindful Walking and Centering

Each of these is described more fully here. 

Despite their very social and talkative nature, students really do long for silence and solitude.

 

As their guides, it is our responsibility to help them find time and space for this.

 

 

[1] McSpadden, Kevin. “Science: You Now Have a Shorter Attention Span Than a Goldfish.”Time. Time, 14 May 2015. Web. 25 Apr. 2017.

 

[2] Gregoire, Carolyn. “Why Silence Is So Good For Your Brain.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 09 Jan. 2017. Web. 25 Apr. 2017.

 

[3] Walton, Alice G. “Science Shows Meditation Benefits Children’s Brains And Behavior.”Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 24 Dec. 2016. Web. 25 Apr. 2017.

 

Flow: Getting beyond gamification and badges in the classroom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Unfortunately, that is not what has been created.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

And everyone packed up and left.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They selected quotes like these:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The conversation vacillated between hopeful and hopeless.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Exploring Racial Bias: Reflecting Inward, Projecting Outward (Part 1)

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%.

Black student responses
White student responses

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.[1]

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.[2]

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.

 

[1] 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>.

[2] Amurao, Caria. “Fact Sheet: How Bad Is the School-to-Prison Pipeline?” PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 01 Jan. 2017.