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.
Josh Vogt stepped into my office and handed me a calendar. “Umm, thank you,” I offered.
“October,” was his only instruction. I examined the annual Day by Day calendar published by the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless. As instructed, I turned to October, expecting to see a photograph of our students. Instead I saw a picture of a group of people I did not recognize, taken downtown near a local homeless shelter. “Bella.” I looked closer but did not see the student he named, and I looked up at him.
“Bella TOOK this picture. This is her picture, from the Mayerson experience this summer.”
The evident pride on his face was well-earned. Josh has worked diligently with students in our school to help them become aware of the social and economic factors that contribute to poverty in our community. For four years he has led a Peace and Justice intersession at Gamble Montessori which includes an overnight “shantytown” experience, where students construct a cardboard shelter and sleep in it overnight on our school grounds. He had, most recently, given up a summer week, 11 hours a day, to partner with our students, the Mayerson Foundation, and Cincinnatians experiencing homelessness. The goal was to humanize the problem, and help students understand the difficulties faced by the poorest of the poor. But what he wanted was this – not to have students merely become aware of the problem, but to have them be part of the effort to fix it. Bella was contributing meaningfully to the conversation.
For a generation, students in high schools have been doing community service in increasingly formal programs. Nearly every high school in the Cincinnati area has a community service requirement that centers around accumulating a certain number of service hours over a high school career. The Mayerson Foundation, which generates and implements “innovative approaches to important issues” in Cincinnati, has helped promote a culture of community service in more than 30 high schools and districts around the greater Cincinnati area, and is a leader in structuring programs designed to promote community service and related service learning. Nationwide, about a quarter of our population participates in meaningful community service annually, though there has been a slight decline since 2011.
Community service, can be broadly defined. In school, often it is a teacher who sets up an opportunity for individual students or an entire class to participate in an activity designed to help a person or organization. This can take many different forms. Gamble students have planted butterfly gardens and removed invasive plants, they have repaired fences to keep out predators and spent time with traumatized animals to prepare them to live with a new owner, and they have worked with toddlers and the elderly.
This passion for involving students in giving of their time and talents to others is beneficial. The community gains an energetic and impressionable army of workers, who often drag friends and family into the work. Students gain a sense of accomplishment and begin to see the scope of the work of adulthood, and the real problems faced not just in other countries but by those in their own backyard. It develops a sense of self-efficacy in the student, who can see themselves as a helper instead of someone who needs the help of others. It fosters grace and courtesy, as we teach lessons about the environment, the elderly, and people experiencing homelessness, and students become comfortable with manners in a variety of new circumstances.
Additionally, developing a habit of volunteering can actually lengthen one’s life, as older folks who volunteer regularly are shown to live longer than those who do not, when controlling for other factors. Finally, we know that adolescents crave meaningful work while resisting busy-work, and tangibly helping a person or an agency as part of a larger cause helps satisfy this urge to make a real impact in their own community.
So volunteering is good. How do we get students to buy in?
Until now, the answer has been: make them do it.
Gamble Montessori looked at other schools’ requirements and settled on an average number of hours from neighboring schools. High school students were asked to compete 50 hours of service a year, for a total of 200 hours required for graduation. Middle school students had a slightly reduced requirement of 30 hours each year.
From the beginning, student involvement in our community service requirement was uneven. Only a few of our students, born into families with strong community service ethics and the means to support this passion, met the requirement each year. Others struggled to make the required total, and sought flexibility in the rules of what we would call service. Teachers found themselves broadening the definition of service. Soon the student lists included raking leaves for grandparents, to dishwashing at home, and we even accepted spending time at home with siblings while parents were at work as community service. Other students failed to meet even this newly broadened standard, and we found ourselves in the position of asking if we were passionate enough about our commitment to service that we would prevent a student from graduating if the requirement was not met. We answered by quietly ignoring the requirement.
The odds seemed stacked against getting all of our students to meet this expectation.
The hours and evidence were hard to track at high school. We tried monitoring it through our advisory, but with infrequent meetings in a class where we typically did not keep grades, the tracking was uneven and unreliable. There was also the issue of keeping and verifying evidence. It was suggested that we centralize it and the task was assigned to one teacher assistant at the school. This seemed to be working until the paper records were entirely lost in a building move. Finally, with the help of a counselor – available through use of a temporary grant – we purchased a program for helping the students track their own hours online. After about a year of implementation, we had trained most of our students in the program, but found that the additional step of self-recording appeared to have diminished our community service participation.
Frustratingly, we also had to confront the reality that some of our students were among those who benefited from charitable giving in the Cincinnati area. More than 70% of Gamble Montessori students are living in poverty, as measured by their eligibility for free or reduced price lunch. Several of our students qualify for assistance under the McKinney-Vento act, designed for students who have experienced homelessness.
This showed up several years ago, when teacher Gloria Lane was working with students to identify a place where they wanted to do some service. One of our 8th graders reported to his teacher that he wanted to work at a particular church that was far from his home. When she asked why he would choose a site that would be hard to get to, she told me that he shared with the class, “They brought presents to my little brother last year. They were really nice.” We explored the irony, or perhaps it was something worse than mere irony, of asking students living in poverty to give their time and resources to helping others. While the spirit of giving was strong (it is my observation that often our poorest families are the quickest to give and the most generous), it felt unfair to make the same demand on our neediest families.
The final nail in the coffin came through the observation made off-hand by a staff member, perhaps Josh himself, at a meeting where the service requirement was being discussed. “It’s another step in the school to prison pipeline. We’re making them do community service hours to get out.”
Sure enough, the perception among some members of our society is that community service is assigned in response to committing misdemeanors. Service as a consequence is so pervasive in our society that local United Way agencies maintain a list of agencies that provide opportunities for people needing to complete court-ordered community service. So our requirement, instead of creating an internal desire to do service for others, was instead inadvertently associating school with crime and punishment in the minds of some of our students. This could reasonably be seen as a powerful motive for some of our students to resist the requirement.
Still, we knew that the act of service is important for students and the community, and we sought to find the right program to build this habit. We had been trying to provide technical solutions to a larger, cultural (or adaptive) problem. We needed a revolution.
Recently, through our partnership with Clare Blankemeyer of the Mayerson Foundation, Gamble teacher Josh Vogt took a revolutionary new approach to service at the school level and created a program he called “Gators Give Back.” While we still have some of the same tracking and participation issues – technical problems that we hope can be resolved – it is a brilliant answer to the larger, adaptive problem of addressing the desire to participate by creating a real relationship between the student and the work.
In Gators Give Back, the hours and hours of potentially disconnected service, possibly spent at dozens of agencies addressing a range of problems, or raking leaves and babysitting, are replaced by a single focus area chosen by the individual student.
The difference between the old program and Gators Give Back is stark, evident right from the first service activity through the finalization of their senior project. At each high school grade, the requirement is distinct from the old “counting 50 hours” expectation.
Ninth graders, instead of being asked to provide evidence of 50 hours of service, select one opportunity from a list provided by the Gators Give Back committee. They are encouraged to attend with a classmate. Then, responding to a prompt, they write a reflection on the experience, which they share with their classmates.
Tenth graders are asked to dig a little bit deeper. Again encouraged to do this in a group of two or three, they must attend the same agency two or three times, gaining an awareness of the social impact and importance of a particular topic. This time, instead of writing a personal reflection, students are asked to take on the role of advocate. In a letter to a public official, they are to explain what they have learned about their chosen agency and the need it meets, and then suggest ways the public official could assist in the area of need.
Our close partnership with the visionary Mayerson Foundation is an essential component of the 11th grade requirement, philanthropy. Our juniors take stewardship over $1,500 dollars provided by the Mayerson’s Magnified Giving program, created by local philanthropist Roger Grein. Over the course of the year, they investigate the work of the agencies they already know firsthand, reviewing grant proposals that are written directly to the students from competing agencies, and researching the needs of the agencies and the community. They invite the agencies to bring proposals to the group. Ultimately, using criteria they have devised, they award the $1,500 to a deserving agency in a triumphant end-of-the-year ceremony.
Noticeably absent from these first three years of the program are the reliance on counting hours, and the likelihood of students experiencing a range of different and uneven volunteering experiences. Instead, students in the Gators Give Back program find themselves serving and reflecting and learning about a particular area of concern, while thinking about multiple aspects of the service. Whereas a student in the former program might have spent hours folding clothes donated to a local shelter, a student today gets an experience with a trusted partner like Visionaries and Voices, then explains the problem to someone in a position to help, and steps into the role of the person in a position to help.
The Gators Give Back manual provides a list of possible agencies and areas of need, and provides templates and prompts for the writing, as well as key definitions for terms such as service learning and advocacy.
Students in our program gain a nuanced understanding of the relationship between societal needs, face to face assistance, and the agencies and systems that can either ameliorate or exacerbate the conditions that make the service necessary.
Senior year, the service project becomes more involved, intertwining with senior project in a segment aligned with the Youth for Justice curriculum. The work is far more involved, requiring several components, and deepening the student’s involvement in issues and solutions.
The senior must select a service topic that relates to their year-long project, often with a connection to their intended career or area of study in college. They must seek out a mentor who is knowledgeable in that area, who will guide them in learning about the topic and making suggestions for meaningful action. Then, importantly, students must begin to implement that solution. At this level, we initially had a minimum requirement of hours, as well as a minimum number of contacts with the mentor, but in practice we found that many of our students had so many contacts during the process that tracking them seemed artificial, and the requirement has fallen by the wayside.
Our seniors are responsible for tracking this progress, and for presenting the work as part of their senior project. This step helped address the accountability issue that existed when community service was a standalone hours-counting project. Enmeshed with their senior project, the work becomes more personal, and directly tied to graduation. Senior Project is a non-negotiable for graduation at Gamble.
I attended one successful project, a domestic violence awareness walk organized by Tariah Washington. Replete with catered food and special-order t-shirts bearing her slogan, the walk drew 50 people who marched and carried placards around our school neighborhood before eating and hearing the presentation Tariah prepared.
The Gators Give Back program is revolutionary because it tackles the kinds of problems that have been plaguing community service programs in high school since their inception. Students are not providing hours of disconnected service in multiple places. Instead they are building meaningful connections with issues of need in their own community. Now, hopefully, students find that service is inextricably linked to a required graduation component. They cannot hope to duck under the gaze of an individual tracking their hours, as the largest portion of the work is part of senior project. Now: impoverished students who may find themselves served by an agency can see a role for themselves beyond receiving or giving temporary help, instead working in the role of advocate and benefactor. This gives them practical skills that they can use in their own situation to make a sustainable change in their own family’s situation. Now: our program is not aligned with the mandatory, punitive community service programs in the justice system, counting hours until release.
Josh related to me a longer version of Bella’s story.
“Bella is one of those students whose life was literally changed by serving others. I’ll never forget that during the summer program, she was strongly advocating for eliminating spikes on concrete that some businesses put on the ground to discourage people experiencing homelessness from sleeping there. One of the StreetVibes vendors we were working with was actually sticking up for the businesses, but Bella did not back down. Another of the vendors raised his hand and said ‘No, man, I agree with her’ and the other vendors started clapping!”
Through service, advocacy, philanthropy, and mentored service learning, students in the Gators Give Back program transcend typical service. Instead they are empowered to act in an area that is meaningful for them.
As a school we have more come a long way, but there are still improvements we could make. This service paper could be incorporated as requirements in English and social studies classes. The letter they write in 10th grade meets a specific requirement for the ELA standards, and working on this in class for a grade would reinforce the requirement, improve the writing, and provide additional support for the student and the work in the school. Advocacy certainly meets high-level expectations in American History and Government classes.
This is how we are doing service at Gamble.
How can you promote service, advocacy, and philanthropy at your school? What have we missed?
(*While in general, this is not a political blog, the impact of this election runs deeper than mere politics. It has affected me as both a teacher and as an individual. I share my thoughts here with the understanding that they exclusively reflect my personal experience, and not necessarily that of teachers in general. If you are looking specifically for strategies to implement in your classroom related to the election, I recommend Jennifer Gonzalez’s blog post After the Election: A To Do List )
It was 8:35 am on November 9th, and the bell had just rung to release students to classrooms as I was frantically wiping the tears off my face.
“What are we going to say to them?” I desperately asked Beau, my teaching partner.
He just looked at me blankly and shook his head.
The shock hadn’t yet worn off. A mere 24 hours earlier, I was delightfully ensconced in a ballot box with my daughter, giggling joyfully while filling in the box next to the words “For President: Hillary Clinton.” I had tears on my face then, too, but those were tears of a different kind.
My entire family had stayed up late to watch the election returns come in. I wanted my children to be part of this incredible moment in history. Earlier that day, my in-laws, who live in Rochester, New York, had attempted to pay their respects at Susan B. Anthony’s grave, only to discover that the line to do so was more than an hour long. There were so many celebrants who wanted to honor the journey for equal political rights that began in 1921 with the passage of the 19th amendment giving women the right to vote. In no small part as a direct result of the passion and courage of Ms. Anthony, tonight that “highest and hardest glass ceiling” would finally be shattered as America elected our first female president.
Our historic moment, however, was not to be. As the night wore on, and one state after another turned red, the celebration that had seemed so certain grew increasingly dim. By the time I went to bed after 1 am, the results were clear. My husband tried to talk to me, to offer consolation, but I was beyond words. I simply couldn’t understand how this was happening.
The next morning, I didn’t know what to say to my children. What could I possibly say to my 16 year old daughter, whose greatest dream is to become an international diplomat, who campaigned door to door for Hillary, and who had tears in her eyes as my husband told her that Donald Trump had won the presidency.
What could I possibly say to my 12 year old son, who struggles to handle disappointment of any kind, and who turned rageful eyes on his father upon hearing the news.
How could I explain that our country had just elected a man to the highest office in the land who ridiculed people with disabilities, spoke of women by noting that he could just “grab them by the pussy,” and discussed without compassion the deportation of Mexicans and the building of a physical wall between us and our nearest neighbor?
I didn’t know what to say to the children at my breakfast table, and I didn’t have any greater clarity about what to say to the children in my classroom.
Somehow I got myself to work. I was in complete shock. I still had no words. As I walked into the classroom Beau and I share, he took one look at my face, and gave me a big hug. That did it. I was immediately overcome with sobs.
And then the students arrived, and I had to wipe the tears from my face and pull myself together.
The mood in the classroom was subdued. We opened by showing the day’s clip from CNN Student News, an unbiased reporting of the results of the night before.
Upon its conclusion, Beau looked at me and said, “You say things now.” This is our cue that means, “I need you to handle this.”
My mind was spinning. I knew I needed to be as unbiased as possible, but I also knew that I needed to be honest. And I knew that my students would need my guidance. How could I manage to cover all those things? I fell back on what I know to be true in all challenging discussions with children – ask them what they need to know.
So I said, “What questions do you have?”
Their responses nearly broke my heart.
In each of my classes, I had an African-American male student raise a sheepish hand. When called upon, they each said very nearly the exact same thing. “This is probably a stupid question, but . . . is it true that he’s going to make all the Black people go back to Africa?”
The relief was palpable at my response, “No, that isn’t true.”
This question was born out of misinformation, but it comes from a fear of sending people back to where they came from, and that concern is real and valid. It wasn’t just the students in my room who were worried about this. Many other teachers reported the same question being raised by their own students.
And there were so many other fear-based questions:
“Can President Trump call for a ‘purge?’”
“Is he really going to build a wall?”
“Is it true that he made fun of people with disabilities?”
“Is he going to start World War III?”
“Do they really have to give him the nuclear codes?”
“Can he be impeached?”
“What about assassinated?”
I defended our political system as best as I was able. I reminded my students about the system of checks and balances, the three branches of government, and the limited powers of the commander-in-chief.
I asked them if they had ever said anything in anger, frustration, or without thinking. In response, I got a resounding, “yes.” I told them that while I was deeply bothered by some of President-Elect Trump’s statements, I wanted to believe that his words could have happened in this same way. I told them that doesn’t make it right, but it could help to make it understandable.
I told them that presidents don’t act alone and that we have many people in Washington who will be advising President-Elect Trump, and that as he learns more and is influenced by others, he may have different views. I told them that impeachment is a very serious thing and would require that he act in a way that violated the law while in office. I told them that assassination is a terrible tragedy for any country and something that would not even be entertained in our classrooms.
I reminded them that nothing would change in what we do in our classroom, or in our school, where we uphold the concept that “Everybody does better when everybody does better.”
And I told them that I was having a really hard time understanding this outcome and what it means.
More than anything, I needed my daughter to hear Hillary’s incredibly gracious and inspiring words telling her that this election didn’t have bearing on the goals that she had for herself.
Even if I didn’t believe it myself.
In quelling the fears of my students — and in many ways I felt like a liar in doing so — I found anger. Anger at a society who would elect a man whose words made them feel so afraid. Anger at the, perhaps unintentional, legitimization of a movement that calls itself the alt-right – verbiage that we can’t allow to distract us from the neo-Nazi, white-supremacist message it purports– this shameful bastard child of White America.
How do we begin to confront and silence that hate? What do we do about that? How can anyone make an impact against that?
He writes, “We need to get over it so we can get on with it — the never-ending work of embodying and enacting love, truth, and justice. There is real suffering out there among people who can’t get over it, and we need to stand and act with them… These are big and daunting problems. But as I move toward them, I’m inspired by David Whyte’s poem, ‘Start Close In.’ It reminds me that when I try to start big, it’s probably because I’m seeking an excuse to get out of doing anything. The big stuff is beyond my reach, at least at the moment. But if I start close in, I’ll find things I can do right now,”
Start close in,
don’t take the second step
or the third,
start with the first
the step you don’t want to take.
the pale ground
beneath your feet,
way of starting
Start with your own
give up on other
don’t let them
your own voice,
Start right now
take a small step
you can call your own
heroics, be humble
start close in,
for your own.
Start close in,
don’t take the second step
or the third,
start with the first
the step you don’t want to take.
Start close in.
This was the same conclusion that I had reached through the course of my post-election day grief, and that evening I came home with new resolve.
I finally had the words to speak to my own children. I told them that our work would be in speaking up for those at risk. That as white people of privilege, we had a moral responsibility to speak up against injustice wherever we saw it . . . in words, in deeds, and in wallet. To stand in the way.
When my son asked me what I meant, I was able to powerfully clarify for him. Stephen was one of my students who asked about being sent back to Africa. Evan and Stephen had been in the same 6th grade class together last year. My voice broke when I said, “Stephen thought that because Trump was elected, he might have to go back to Africa. We must not allow anyone to ever feel like they are unwanted, or that they do not belong here. We must stand in the way any time, and every time, we see something that might make people feel that way.”
So that has been my way forward. To stand in the way.
In post-election America, we are being called upon by some to come together, to accept the results and move-on.
I don’t agree. I’m willing to accept the results, and while I respect the rights of those who are demonstrating against the election results or calling for “faithless electors,” this is not where I stand. Donald Trump won this election; we have no evidence that it was “rigged.” However, I also think it is a mistake to meekly accept this as our “new reality,” or as some kind of “fresh start.”
We must be vigilant. We must be prepared to stand in the way.
But what does that look like?
What does it sound like?
I was quickly provided an opportunity to practice.
Just a few days after the election, my husband was upset about a comment made on a friend’s Facebook post by someone we don’t know. This is what it said: “no more apologizing for being born white in America” Blake was bothered that our friend hadn’t directly responded to it. He told me he was considering “unfriending” this person, so he didn’t have to see any more comments like that. I said, “You can’t do that. Vulnerable people can unfriend others for hurtful and offensive comments, but those of us with privilege carry the responsibility of confrontation, of engaging in the conversation.”
He thought about this for a moment, and then said, “Okay, that’s great. So why don’t you? You’re friends with him, too.”
Yes. Right. That.
I took a deep breath, and wrote this in response to the comment:
“I don’t know you, but I do know that being born white in America automatically brings with it a certain level of privilege, and I find it hard to believe that anyone is in a real (not just perceived) situation where they feel the need to apologize for their whiteness. There are, of course, many forms of privilege. I don’t know how many of the categories of privilege apply to you, but I ask you to self-reflect on that. I, too, am over-all a person of privilege. However, I teach in an urban, public school and my students are predominantly African-American and often living below the poverty level. It’s not easy work, but I love what I do, and, more importantly, I love them. As a person of privilege, I stand with them, and I am committed to speaking up on their behalf wherever it seems necessary.”
I received a lengthy reply that, among other things, included many comments about perceived discrimination against white people, “WE ARE SHAMED by being born here and not black or wear a turban. that’s racism and “white shaming” It wont be tolerated anymore we now can stand up and demand equality.”
Instead of turning away, I continued to engage.
Our exchange was quite lengthy, and I do not think that I changed this man’s mind, but that wasn’t my goal. My goal was to challenge his thinking and his assumptions, and to push back publicly against the notion that these ideas are acceptable or common.
I think there is a great temptation during times of distress to circle the wagons – to insulate ourselves within our classrooms and communities and focus on that which is directly in front of us. This is understandable, self-protective behavior, but history has shown us the incredible risk in isolating ourselves from “the other,” and the dangerous de-humanizing that often comes with other-ness. If nothing else, this election has shown us how fragmented we are as a society, and it has left me contemplating the role of teachers. Teaching is an art, and we have been gifted with it. We know how to convey information. And, perhaps, more importantly, many of us walk pretty fluidly between two worlds – the world of privilege and the world without it. This provides us with a unique opportunity to tell our stories, and in so doing to shine a light that banishes the distance from “the other.”
Perhaps the best outcome of my conversation with a complete stranger on Facebook was the heart-felt discussion it prompted with a dear friend. He and his wife were uncomfortable about critical comments they had received from others. They had seen parts of my above exchange on social media and, as a result, involved me in dialogue about the election.
This was hard. David is my husband’s oldest childhood friend. His wife and I have spent many hours exploring best parenting practices. I witnessed the births of all three of his children. He voted for Donald Trump.
Mostly I just wanted to yell at him, “How could you?!” But what good would that do? He knows how I feel about politics. I know how he feels.
But my students are afraid.
Of course David didn’t intend for my students to be frightened by the election of Donald Trump, but it is the reality of the situation. How could I continue to look my students in the eye if I didn’t engage in this conversation? Better yet, how could I work together with those who cast a ballot for Trump to address what makes my students feel afraid – no matter how uncomfortable it makes me?
This is what it means to “start close in.”
David, Let’s start with what’s most important. I love you and your family. Now moving on, I disagree entirely with your political beliefs and values. We don’t have to talk about that right now. But here’s what we do have to talk about right now. The only way that I can live with these election results and still face my children, and more importantly, my students – for it is they who are most at risk — is to commit myself wholeheartedly to speaking out against prejudice and injustice. But here’s the thing. To conservatives, I can be readily discounted as just another hippie liberal. Guilty as charged. You cannot. All I ask is for you to stand with me on this. Your voice matters more than mine because as a supporter, you have far more sway than I do. I invite you to publicly speak against those that are engaging in hateful actions. everywhere it pops up — which is a thing that is happening. I invite you to pledge to do whatever you can to ensure that women are treated with respect and as equally capable as men, to take care of immigrants to this country who are law-abiding, to refuse to accept the ridicule of people with disabilities, to protect people of color from being stereotyped and judged, to support those who have less than you do. I know you’re hurting from the criticism of those who don’t understand your choice — believe me, I am hurting, too. But there are places where we can come together.
And his response:
Hey K. I love you and your family too. As to your invitation, I of course hold it important to defend against those things. For now, I just want people to understand that whether they agree with my choice, it doesn’t mean I was careless or heartless or in any way less conscientious as they were with my decision. If I could put Jed Bartlett into Trump, I would. I wasn’t given that choice. And as scared as you are of someday watching tanks rolling down Fifth Avenue and gathering up minorities (imagery), I have my own concerns that are built on more than just a little thought, research, and soul searching. I want you to know that I hear you. I don’t think you’re calling me names. I don’t think you’ve found a way to reconcile my choice with being a good person either, but I don’t think you’re calling me names. I respect you, in some ways uniquely so. Believe that. But I don’t interpret all these events the way you do. Love, Me.
David’s words were what I needed to hear to know that while we see things very differently, we still share much of the same heart, and that while he made an election day choice that I will likely never fully understand, he, personally, hadn’t, and wouldn’t, betray the values that were critical to both of our families.
This is “starting close in” . . . and standing in the way.
It is uncomfortable, but as Bryan Stevenson says in his powerful video, “Confronting Injustice,” we must be willing to “get uncomfortable.” Remembering the fear on my students’ faces gives me courage. Their questions were, in many ways, naïve, but they were not baseless. My students are afraid because scary things have been said. We do not yet know exactly where this election will lead, but we do know that it has given a newfound boldness to hate. Since Donald Trump won the Presidential election, there has been a dramatic rise in incidents of racist and xenophobic harassment across the country. The Southern Poverty Law Center has reported that there were more than 700 incidents of intimidation between the election, on November 8th, and November 16th, targeting blacks and other people of color, Muslims, immigrants, the L.G.B.T. community, and women.
So, as each of us figures out what this election ultimately means for us, for those close to us, for those different from us, for our country, let’s remember to “start close in” by engaging with each other and having those difficult conversations in all areas of our lives. We must also be prepared to stand in the way whenever necessary. My students, their families, and so many others like them, deserve this from us.
 Yan, Holly, Kristina Sgueglia, and Kylie Walker. “‘Make America White Again’: Hate Speech and Crimes Post-election.” CNN. Cable News Network, n.d. Web. 26 Nov. 2016.
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.
“Darling, I love you, please give me a smile.”
“Darling, I love you, but I just can’t smile.”
This is the script for the game — one of the most delightful and joy-filled activities of the school year. We play “Darling, I Love You” with our 7th graders during our Leadership Camp field experience each spring.
The rules are simple. The “it” person approaches someone in the circle, and says, “Darling I love you, please give me a smile.” The recipient of this declaration, must respond with, “Darling, I love you, but I just can’t smile;” however, they must do so without smiling or laughing.
That’s it. That’s the entirety of the game. Hilarity ensues. Some students break down in laughter as soon as they are approached; other students somehow manage, often with great facial manipulation, to remain stony-faced no matter how dramatically the declaration of love is provided.
I initially introduced this game at Gamble with tremendous trepidation. It seemed so silly; I was worried that it would flop terribly. However, each time we play, it has elicited quite the opposite reaction. Students beg and plead to play again and again.
This game is non-competitive. There is no real skill involved. It does not include elaborate rules nor does it need special materials. It’s just good, old-fashioned fun, and yet they love it. The smiles and laughter that naturally accompany this game, remind me of the children that they yet are.
In my early days of teaching, Kim Bryant, a colleague and friend, and a junior high special ed teacher, used to regularly remind me that, “Special educators and junior high teachers get automatic entry to heaven.” Since the first half of my career was spent exclusively teaching high school, whenever I would hear this, I would think, “Well, one out of two ain’t bad, ‘cause there’s no way I’m ever teaching junior high!” It seemed that no matter where I was, junior high was always a problem. Those kids were just SO squirrely, and their energy so hard to corral.
Then I took my current position at Gamble . . . teaching junior high . . . and I will never go back. There is just something so precious about this age group. Yes, they’re squirrely. Yes, their energy is hard to corral, but they are solidly standing on both sides of a great divide. They are desperately seeking maturity, but are still so firmly rooted in childhood. This is why they can have such fun with a simple game like “Darling, I love you.”
Rachel Kessler identified this desire for play as The Hunger for Joy and Delight, and she described it as follows:
“The hunger for joy and delight can be satisfied through experiences of great simplicity, such as play, celebration, or gratitude. It also describes the exaltation students feel when encountering beauty, power, grace, brilliance, love, or the sheer joy of being alive.”
Like each of the 7 Gateways, she believes this hunger for joy and delight is essential for the adolescent, and yet joy and delight can be woefully absent from schools.
A post from the NY Times parenting blog states it like this, “Yet in all the talk about education reform, happiness rarely seems to make the list, even though there’s plenty of evidence out there about what an improved school environment might mean for learning and test scores, not to mention student attitudes and drop-out rates.”
So how do we instill our schools with joy and delight, or, for lack of a better word, with fun?
My colleague, Scott Pardi, upgraded Gamble’s core values last summer. Mostly he changed the language that describes each of our existing values, but he also added a sixth core value, “Joy.” And, of course, it makes sense that alongside Community, Hard Work, Learning, Peace, and Respect, we should also have Joy.
However, filling our classrooms with joy and delight isn’t so easy to do. In preparation for writing this post, I have been brainstorming what we do at Gamble to infuse our teaching with fun. The vast majority of things I’ve come up with are things we do when we are out of the classroom on field experiences. While these can be hard to replicate, their importance is difficult to deny. Field experiences provide students with authentic opportunities to play.
I am reminded of fall camp and the sight of my students frolicking in the Little Miami River as I pulled my canoe up to the bank at our lunch spot. They were splashing each other, shrieking, and laughing – completely child-like in their absorption.
Just a few moments later, they realized that they could float in the water, and the current would pull them downriver. They did this again and again and again loving the sensation of being towed along.
On the beach in Pigeon Key, Florida students spent the better part of an hour burying each other in sand and giggling. Joy and Delight.
I love seeing my students this way. These are the same kids who often present as being “Too cool for school,” who bristle at redirection, who don’t want to be told what to do or how to do it, and who invest great time and energy into proving how little they need adults. They openly scoff at “being treated like a little kid,” or at anything that appears “baby-ish” to them.
Yet, when I watch them engaged in play, they look little different from preschoolers. Although their bodies are much larger and are beginning to resemble the adults they will eventually become, the pure delight reflected on their faces is reminiscent of that of the three and four year olds they once were.
It is all well and good to be able to witness The Hunger for Joy and Delight in these remarkable settings, but those are atypical experiences that don’t mirror the daily reality of school. How can we bring these experiences inside the four walls of the classroom?
Many teachers will be familiar with the classroom management adage: “Don’t smile until Christmas.” What?! Half of the school year gone without cracking a smile? I don’t think I could follow this advice for a single day much less for four months. I can’t imagine a better way to absolutely squash any possibility of joy and delight experienced in the classroom than to have a smile-less teacher. Fortunately a quick Google search yields a plethora of articles debunking this outdated advice, and yet it remains challenging to find ways to foster joy in the classroom.
The school accountability movement has snatched much of the joy out of teaching and learning. The pressure to perform is great for both teachers and students, and assessment and evaluation lurk around every turn – pacing guides and curriculum maps tell us what to teach and when to teach it, SLO pre-tests, post-tests, and growth measures tell us what our students knew before we provided any instruction and how much growth they should be able to demonstrate by the post-testing deadline. State standardized tests, which in Ohio have changed each year for the past three years leading to untrialed and unnormed testing, are used as a near sole measure to identify the effectiveness of schools and districts.
Data and measurement have become king, but joy is immeasurable, and I fear it is being pushed to the wayside as a result. I don’t mean to imply that looking for indicators of academic growth is all bad; it is not. However, the sheer volume of these requirements, the seeming randomness of the bars that are being set for proficiency, and the high-stakes nature of the outcomes for students, teachers, and schools alike, have led to a pressure-cooker classroom environment, and joy has, in large part, evaporated. But as Andrew Carnegie said, “There is little success where there is little laughter.”
We can fight to preserve joy, and we can note its conditions when we see it. Just last week, a female student who insists that she hates math and is no good at it, looked up at me positively beaming, excitedly pointed to the solution on her paper, and nearly shouted, “Look, I did it! It’s right isn’t it? No, you don’t have to tell me. I’m right; I know I am!” Joy and delight. There it is. Right there in that moment. Lindsey’s joy and delight arrived only through perseverance and struggle. Her bright smile and exuberance came after many days of frustration that looked like this.
One of the regular ways we seek to bring joy and delight to our instruction at Gamble is through the implementation of group initiatives or games. These often intentionally create frustration for students, in part so that they can experience the jubilation that emerges upon successful completion of a difficult task.
Once a week, we suspend content instruction for a bell, and practice experiencing joy and delight together through some kind of team-building activity – These can be games, like “Darling, I Love You,” or “Four on a Couch,” or group initiatives – cooperative problem-solving tasks – like Peanut Butter River or Human Knot. These activities are fun although often frustrating, too. There is laughter, but there can be arguing as well. We always end this type of activity with what we call Awareness of Process questions, and these discussions are the most important part. Students explore “What?” or what the activity asked of them and what made it challenging. This leads us to “So what?” or what was its purpose and value — what did we learn from it? The final thread is “Now what?” an investigation of how we can apply these same skills in the classroom or in interpersonal relationships.
There are many important concepts that arise from this questioning. Students regularly note the importance of persevering through struggle, of being patient and listening to one another, of having a strategy and allowing leaders to lead, and of demonstrating grace and courtesy with one another. However, a frequent response to why we do these kinds of activities, is “to have fun.” That can be easily overlooked, but having fun together has inherent value. It’s said that “Laughter is the best medicine,” and modern science is, indeed, proving the health benefits of experiencing laughter. As Kessler said, our students hunger for joy and delight.
So encourage play, and make time for it as best you are able. Provide structures and activities through which students can experience joy and delight. Preserve and cherish fun.
Adolescents might say that they hate to be “treated like a kid,” but I’m not convinced. I can’t count the number of times on overnight field experiences that students have asked, “Ms. Taylor, will you sing us to sleep tonight?” Now, I am a mediocre vocalist at best; they aren’t asking because they love to hear the sound of my voice. They are asking because deep down they are still holding onto the need to be nurtured in this way. So I dust off all the lullabies and folk songs I can remember, and I sing them over and over again until only the sound of slumber fills the room. The joy and delight experienced is not just theirs – it is mine, too.
So treasure joy and delight. When laughter is brought into the classroom, it is not just students who benefit; teachers do as well. All of us need to experience joy and delight on a regular basis. We watch adolescents overtly struggle with the societal idea that growing up means leaving play behind, but perhaps we are all backwards in this. Perhaps growing up really means actively seeking out joy and delight and learning how to intentionally incorporate it into the fabric of our lives. So experience play, celebration, and gratitude. Encounter beauty, power, grace, brilliance, love, and the sheer joy of being alive. As we teach this to our students, so, too, shall we learn.
 Rowley, Barbara. “Why Can’t School Be More like Summer?” The New York TImes. N.p., 6 Sept. 2012. Web. 29 Oct. 2016.
At my Kenyon College commencement address, Lamar Alexander, the Secretary of Education under George H. W. Bush, quoted Alex Haley: “Find the good, and praise it.” At the time, it meant little to me. Although it is the only thing I remember from the entire speech, I have no idea why I remember it. I was not impressed by having Mr. Alexander as our speaker — he simply represented conservative politics to me. I was not excited about his role as Education Secretary, since I was definitely not going to become a teacher. Additionally, I was not a person who was naturally drawn to seeing the positive in things, so I didn’t think this phrase was even particularly applicable to me.
Except somehow it was. “Find the good and praise it.” I still remember it after all these years, and there is little that has impacted my teaching more. It seems like such a simple practice, and yet it is not nearly as easy as it sounds.
As described in previous posts on The Power of the Positive and Neuroscience, humans are naturally wired to scan their environment for problems or errors, and we often feel compelled to tell the whole truth – warts and all. However, we can be truth-tellers without telling the whole truth, and sometimes it’s really important that we do so.
Like so many things, I have learned this lesson from my students.
We were in the final week before the end of the first semester, and in the throes of finishing up final drafts of our Capstone papers. Students and teachers alike were feeling frustrated, overwhelmed, and irritated. One day at the end of morning meeting, as we were transitioning to academic instruction, Nate pulled me aside, and asked, “Ms. Taylor, when are we going to do that thing where you tell us what we’re good at?” I knew immediately what he meant, but I had entirely forgotten that I had promised to provide it.
“That thing where you tell us what we’re good at.”
This was a practice that I had formally begun the year before at the conclusion of our Leadership Camp ceremony – a description of each student at his or her best. I had indicated that we would do something similar as part of our celebration of the fall or winter holidays, but I hadn’t gotten around to scheduling it.
Nate beat me to the punch by directly requesting what he, and the rest of the class, needed. It was time to show faith in our students, to demonstrate that we wouldn’t give up on them, and to encourage their positive contributions, no matter how small. Nate recognized the importance of telling them “what they’re good at” before I did, and I am profoundly grateful that he had the courage to point it out to me.
“That thing where you tell us what we’re good at” is a process akin to panning for gold. The first step is to envision each student with a singular focus. What is true about this child? The entirety of the truth is there – rocks, mud, silt, and all. Narrowing the vision, and selecting different lenses through which to see, is like running clear water over the muck and allowing the pebbles and dirt to be washed away. Eventually, only the golden nuggets are left behind. Alex Haley said, “Find the good and praise it.” The golden nuggets are “the good.” They are what remain after the layers of defenses, and shields, and mistakes, and poor choices have been washed away. Every student in every classroom has golden nuggets just waiting to be revealed. Some of them are easy to see; it is a joy to hold these students’ gifts up to the light and celebrate them. However, for other students, the golden nuggets can take effort to uncover. It is for these students that this process is the most important. For many of these students, a teacher may be the first person who has ever helped them to see themselves in a purely positive light – free of hidden put-downs, backhanded compliments, or veiled barbs. These “golden nuggets” may not be the whole truth, but that doesn’t make them untrue, nor are they any less true if they are described in isolation from the rest. These visions of possibility allow students to perceive their best selves. This can be a tremendously powerful experience.
So, when was I going to tell them what they were good at? It was a great question, and a great moment, and yet I almost missed it – this overt cue. Instead of acknowledging the import of his query, and providing him with a sincere response, I jokingly responded, “I don’t know. Maybe when I like you better!” Nate laughed. I laughed. The moment passed. But later that evening, upon reflection of my day, I recognized my error, and I immediately began planning how to incorporate this ritual into the tea party that was already scheduled for the end of the week.
It is tradition at Gamble for the junior high students to celebrate the end of the first semester with a high tea. Students and teachers dress up in fancy attire, we decorate the classroom, practice etiquette, and serve fancy tea and cookies. I decided to fold the individual strengths ceremony when I “tell them what they are good at” into this formal and celebratory occasion.
In preparation, I spent many hours filtering through what I knew about each of my students and sifting out the negative pieces. Ultimately, I was able to write a true and unique statement for each of my students, describing his or her “best self.”
The highly anticipated day arrived. Girls arrived in dresses and bows, male teachers helped the boys tie their ties, Each student group spread tablecloths and arranged centerpieces to convert our daily work space into a festive reflection of the season. We poured tea, served cookies, and then it was time.
To set the tone, I shared the following excerpt from Aspire by David Hall.
This story was told to Hall by an Indian shopkeeper:
“I grew up in Calcutta among the poorest of the poor. Through education and hard work my family was able to break the shackles of poverty. My mother taught me many great things. One of the most important was the meaning of an ancient Hindi word. In the West you might call this charity, but I think you’ll find this word has a deeper meaning. The word is “Genshai” (GEN-shy). It means that you should never treat another person in a manner that would make them feel small. As children, we were taught to never look at, touch, or address another person in a way that would make them feel small. If I were to walk by a beggar in the street and casually toss him a coin, I would not be practicing Genshai. But if I knelt down on my knees and looked him in the eye when I placed that coin in his hand, that coin became love. Then and only then, after I had exhibited pure, unconditional brotherly love, would I become a true practitioner of Genshai. Genshai means that you never treat anyone small – and that includes yourself.” 
I explained to the class that as a component of not “treating them small,” I wanted them to see the “best self” version of themselves that their teachers saw in them. I wanted each of them to hear themselves, and each of their peers, described in this way because “Everybody does better when everybody does better.”
Students will take these types of ceremonies seriously if the teachers work to establish a formal tone. To set the stage for this event, I placed each child’s “best self statement” inside of a gift box to symbolize that not only was this my gift to them, but that each of them was a gift to our community, and to our world. To prepare the space for the occasion, I ceremonially displayed the boxes in the front of the classroom, dimmed the lights, and played soft music.
While students truly love hearing about themselves and each other in positive ways, they need guidance and direct instruction on how to listen appropriately, so that they create a space that is emotionally safe for every member of the community. Feeling vulnerable is uncomfortable for most of us, and knowing that you are going to be spoken about publicly – even, or perhaps especially, when this is done positively – can often lead to laughter, or even inappropriate behavior, as a means to relieve the discomfort. Being directly instructed about how to manage themselves in this type of situation helps to dispel the nervousness and anxiety that many students may experience. They need to be reminded that we applaud equally for every individual, and that any comments that might possibly be seen as critical are a violation of the principles of community. They need to be provided with clear expectations about the importance of being quiet and attentive as each person’s individual statement is read.
After establishing all of these expectations for my students, the room was hushed and serious as I began the individual reading of the “best self” statements for all 50 students as well as the 4 staff people who were with us.
Together we recognized James, for whom sitting still and not blurting out answers is a constant challenge, but this statement is also true about him: “You are one of the kindest souls I’ve ever met. You are conscientious about making sure that everyone is included, and you can’t stand it when things are unfair. I can’t decide whether I am more proud of you for trying to throw the game when you realized that the Outsiders impressionistic lesson was rigged, or for the encouragement and companionship you offer to Kim (a student with Down Syndrome) on every field experience. You are a gift.”
And Margo: “One of your most noteworthy character strengths is gratitude. You always remember to say thank you – even when it’s for helping you redo an assignment that has been handed back to you for corrections over and over again. You hate to make mistakes, but you must learn to be gentle with yourself. It is through mistakes that we learn and grow; we must embrace them! You are a gift.”
And Denise, who struggles academically more than any of our other students, and who tends to be discounted by her peers as a result: “You are often under-appreciated in our community, but where would we be without your ready willingness to help? From providing a pencil to someone who lost theirs, sharing your annotated reading with those who don’t have one, or taking on extra duties in the classroom, all of us lean on you. For all the times we may have forgotten to say thank you, well . . . ‘thank you’ from the bottom of our hearts. You are a gift.”
And on and on, until each student had been acknowledged and had seen his or her unique contributions to the group as a whole. This took the better part of an hour – a beautiful hour of student engagement, support, and attentiveness. After four months together of learning to follow expectations and procedures, figuring out how to interact with each other, and tackling rigorous academic content, like Algebra I and the Capstone Project, we were dearly lacking in energy, patience, and enthusiasm. However, in the space provided by that hour, we came together in the final moments of the semester to celebrate and recognize the progress and growth that each student had achieved individually, but that had truly been accomplished in conjunction with each other.
I knew that I had taught them well, when after the last statement had been read, many students immediately noted that I had not received one. Two young ladies took it upon themselves to write a “best self” statement for me. Their statement mirrored my tone and verbiage, ending with “You are a gift.” How powerful it was that, as a group, students understood that when we do things as a community, it is imperative that all members are included. It was unacceptable to them that anyone was left out – including me.
Did these “best self” statements reflect how students always behave in the classroom? Most certainly not. Negative behaviors attract our attention readily. The 4:1 positive to negative interaction ratio is much touted as being critical to student success, but it is so hard to achieve. Even when providing positive feedback, it can be so tempting to temper praise with “the whole truth”, or what I call, “the but”. “The but” can take many forms; in each, the positive feedback is subtly turned into a partial criticism. This strips the compliment of all of its intended power. Listen closely to yourself or others when positive reflections are provided; you may be startled by how often the tribute is undermined by some version of “the but.” Sometimes, the recipients – children and adults alike – will even add “the but” themselves. We are so uncomfortable with our own goodness. As Marianne Williamson said, “It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.” Providing “best self” statements helps each of us to fight against the temptation to focus of faults and flaws, and to reinforce the importance of those things we do best.
Managing a classroom requires frequent behavioral redirection. Making academic progress requires the pointing out and correction of error. Students regularly hear teachers reflect on what they are doing poorly. It is important that they also have opportunities to hear themselves described in their most positive light. It provides them with a possibility to live into, invites them to see themselves in this way, and engages them in the process of their own growth and development. It sends the message that they can be successful, that the adults in their life believe in them and their ability to succeed, and that we won’t give up on helping them to become their best selves.
Students absolutely love seeing themselves through a wholly positive lens; it is profound to see how much stock they put in this, and how often the words we give them re-emerge later as a way in which they describe themselves. As teachers we hold tremendous power in influencing how students view themselves. This is a weighty burden, and a responsibility that we must not take lightly. Don’t forget to “do that thing where you tell them what they’re good at.” It will likely mean more than you will ever know.
 Hall, Kevin. Aspire: Discovering Your Purpose through the Power of Words. New York: William Morrow, 2010. Print.
After any lesson that involved rich discussion, Alex would sidle up to me with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, and say something like, “So if everything started with the Big Bang, what was there before that?”
Then he’d point at me and proudly say, “Can’t answer that one, can you, Ms. Taylor? Makes you think, doesn’t it?” Then, off he would go to his next class.
This is why I teach: to witness students come alive in the way Alex had – to be curious about the world and their role in it, and to be courageous enough to ask the big questions, knowing in advance that perhaps there are no real answers. To teach the whole child.
Teaching the whole child. We reference this frequently, but do we really know what it means? Do we all share the same definition? Do we know how to do it intentionally?
This concept of teaching more than academics, of developing students as well-rounded citizens is not new. As early as 1818, education was being defined as far broader than what fits neatly into the curricular content areas. In the 1818 Report of the Commissioners for the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson noted the importance of the role of education in the development of:
Understanding duties to one’s neighbors and country
A knowledge of rights
Intelligence and faithfulness in social relations
One hundred years later, in 1918, the National Education Association, indicated a similar function of schooling, as delineated in The Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education
Command of the fundamental processes
Worthy home membership
Worthy use of leisure
In the mid to late 20th century, the “Open Education” movement put forward the need to include the following in classrooms:
Cooperation and democratic participation in the classroom
And more recently, as the concept of “happiness” is being explored as something that includes specific, teachable components, it has been proposed that schools intentionally develop these qualities in students:
A rich intellectual life
Rewarding human relationships
Love of home and place
Good parenting ability
The pursuit of a job that one loves 
Phew, that’s a lot to cover in addition to reading, writing, and arithmetic!
And yet, it’s hard to argue with the importance of each of the items on each of those lists.
Teaching the whole child. We may not be able to clearly articulate it, or to agree on the exact same definition, but we certainly know its importance and we recognize it when we see it.
Alex loved sharing his big thoughts with me. I knew I had him hooked; I knew that he was engaging in his education far beyond the academic component. I knew that he was experiencing a rich, intellectual life, creativity, and a love of learning that would extend far beyond the classroom.
But how had I, and all of his teachers before me, helped him get to this place? What are the inroads to engaging students in this way? How do we teach “the whole child?”
Rachel Kessler investigates this concept in her inspiring and hope-filled book, The Soul of Education: Helping Students Find Connection, Compassion, and Character at School. Her use of the word “soul” is secular in nature, describing the teaching of the whole child to which so many of us ascribe. However, it can be challenging to integrate this into our classrooms alongside and in between the many, many requirements that currently exist in our educational system.
None of those additional whole child pieces were included in the No Child Left Behind Act, and while the Every Student Succeeds Act does touch on the importance of this, it fails to provide guidance on how to achieve it, stating little more than that schools should foster safe, healthy, supportive environments that support student academic achievement. 
Perhaps, in the current political-educational environment, failing to clearly define this type of instruction is for the best, as the elements of teaching the whole child both predate and supersede the current testing compulsion, and are entirely immeasurable.
In the Forward to Kessler’s book, Parker J. Palmer, founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal, and a world-renowned writer, speaker and activist, includes this reflection on the school accountability movement:
“We took teaching and learning – that ancient exchange between student and teacher and world in which human beings have always explored the depths of the soul – and started thinning it down into little more than the amassing of data and the mastering of technique… Kessler’s book does not ignore the standards movement, but responds creatively to the deeper yearning behind it: the desire to truly engage and equip today’s young people for effective learning. We must address what has heart and meaning for them if we want them to learn.”
Through her work teaching adolescents, Kessler identified what she coined as “Seven Gateways to the Soul.” Kessler arrived at this concept through compiling the reflections of her students over the course of many years and noting the categories they clustered into. Her gateways are, in essence, strategies for reaching the hearts and minds of adolescents –a kind of roadmap for how to teach the whole child. They are not linear, however – there is no particular order to them, they need to be traversed many times, they often overlap, and individual students will find varied levels of meaning in each of the different gateways.
The yearning for deep connection
The longing for silence and solitude
The search for meaning and purpose
The hunger for joy and delight
The creative drive
The urge for transcendence
The need for initiation 
Note the powerful verbs that Kessler uses – yearning, longing, search, hunger, drive, urge, and need. These gateways are not optional. Our students need us to provide the experiences for them. While it can be challenging to find ways to weave these components into the precious time we have with our class, there are infinite ways we can do so, and we must find a way.
This post serves merely as an overview of Kessler’s work. Each gateway will be explored individually and thoroughly in a future post. At Gamble, there are a variety of ways that we weave the seven gateways into our curriculum. Many of those are listed here; however they serve as nothing more than a beginning point. Replicating what we do is not necessary. Determining what is right for your students is. Engaging students through experiences aligned with Kessler’s seven gateways is teaching the whole child.
The Yearning for Deep Connection
“The yearning for deep connection describes a quality of relationship that is profoundly caring, is resonant with meaning, and involves feelings of belonging, or of being truly seen and known. Students may experience deep connection to themselves, to others, to nature, or to a higher power.”
A junior high community structure, where students remain with the same class of peers and teachers for most of the school day, helps to forge strong interpersonal bonds.
At high school, a similar experience is created through a 2-year looping cycle.
A bell schedule built to accommodate student-run meetings during the first fifteen minutes of each day
The Longing for Silence and Solitude
“The longing for silence and solitude, often an ambivalent domain, is fraught with both fear and urgent need. As a respite from the tyranny of ‘busyness’ and noise, silence may be a realm of reflection, of calm or fertile chaos, an avenue of stillness and rest for some, prayer and contemplation for others.”
Solo time, based on Maria Montessori’s development of “The Silent Game,” provides students with the experience of silence and solitude at least once each week
Mindfulness practices are demonstrating nearly unbelievable results in school districts that are implementing them with fidelity. At this point, at Gamble, we are merely dabbling in this work, but current research indicates that it is likely to be a growing trend.
The Search for Meaning and Purpose
“The search for meaning and purpose concerns the exploration of big questions, such as ‘Why am I here?’ ‘Does my life have a purpose?’ ‘How do I find out what it is?’ ‘What is life for?’ ‘What is my destiny?’ ‘What does my future hold?’ and ‘Is there a God?’”
Montessori Secondary curriculum is based on what are called “cycles of study.” Cycles of study are a quarter or a semester in length, and they focus on a theme that explores big questions.
Montessori wrote about the importance of real-world experiences. At Gamble, students participate in field experiences and intersessions each year. Some of these, like the trip to Pigeon Key, serve to expose students to the wonder of the world around them. Others, like the college and career intersessions that take place during students’ junior and senior years, guide students toward future academic and career choices. Both help students to grapple with life’s deep questions.
The Hunger for Joy and Delight
“The hunger for joy and delight can be satisfied through experiences of great simplicity, such as play, celebration, or gratitude. It also describes the exaltation students feel when encountering beauty, power, grace, brilliance, love, or the sheer joy of being alive.”
Group initiatives, or cooperative, team-building experiences, are part of the Montessori components we conduct regularly at Gamble.
And, of course, we experience joy and delight on our field experiences and intersessions.
The Creative Drive
“The creative drive, perhaps the most familiar domain for nourishing the spirit in school, is part of all the gateways. Whether developing a new idea, a work of art, a scientific discovery, or an entirely new lens on life, students feel the awe and mystery of creating.”
Kessler notes that creativity is something that is commonly woven into curricula. Despite budget cuts that seem to imply the opposite, exposing adolescents to art, music, and drama is critical to their development.
Choice work is a component of both Montessori philosophy and current educational best practices. Giving students the option to create a poster, a 3-D model, write a play or a poem, or create illustrations to demonstrate understanding is a very common way to embed creativity into the classroom.
One of the graduation requirements at Gamble is a Senior Project. In this broad independent study, students have complete determination over the topic they choose to study.
The Urge for Transcendence
“The urge for transcendence describes the desire of young people to go beyond their perceived limits. It includes not only the mystical realm, but experiences of the extraordinary in the arts, athletics, academics, or human relations. By naming and honoring this universal human need, educators can help students constructively channel this powerful urge.”
At Gamble, like at most schools, students are provided with extracurricular opportunities. Auditioning for a play, trying out for a team, achieving a personal best or breaking a record are all ways that students can push past their perceived limits.
In the spring of students’ 7th grade year, we go on a multi-day leadership experience held at a local YMCA camp. This is a “challenge by choice” experience, and we ask students to push themselves beyond their comfort level.
The Need for Initiation
“The need for initiation deals with rites of passage for the young – guiding adolescents to become more conscious about the irrevocable transition from childhood to adulthood. Adults can give young people tools for dealing with all of life’s transitions and farewells. Meeting this need for initiation often involves ceremonies with parents and faculty that welcome them into the community of adults.”
The first experience students have with initiation at Gamble happens on the last night of fall camp.
Mirroring the fall camp initiation ceremony, there is a similar event on the last night in Pigeon Key, Florida.
Of course, graduation is the ultimate school-based rite of passage ceremony. At Gamble this is done in two stages
At Meet the Seniors night, each family gets to introduce their child to the Gamble community, and we get the opportunity to view each of these students from the perspective of their family. Each student is given time to be the most important person in the room.
Commencement is a monumental celebration in any school. The things that make Gamble’s graduations special are described here.
There are many, many ways to honor adolescents’ yearning, longing, search, hunger, drive, urge, and need for each of the gateways that Kessler has identified. This teaching of the whole child is at least as essential as any set of standards or curriculum requirements; as a society, we have been aware of that for several hundred years. There are infinite possibilities that will meet these needs; as educators we must seek them out and implement them.
Over the course of the next few months, we will more deeply explore each gateway – describing in full what we do at Gamble to address each, investigating ways other schools have done the same, and inviting you to share your work along these lines, as well as ideas for going deeper.
 Noddings, Nel. “What Does It Mean to Educate the Whole Child?” Educational Leadership, vol. 63, no. 1, Sept. 2005, pp. 8–13.
 Palmer, Parker. “Forward.” The Soul of Education: Helping Students Find Connection, Compassion, and Character at School, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Alexandria, VA, 2000, pp. v-vi.
 Kessler, Rachael. The Soul of Education: Helping Students Find Connection, Compassion, and Character at School. Alexandria, VA, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2000.
Senior Project Night is a proud night at Gamble Montessori. The school becomes the very public arena where our seniors’ projects, started a full year earlier, are seen in their entirety for the first time. Nervous students, in their Sunday best clothing, circle their tables and wring their hands, making small talk with their parents and mentors as the time arrives and space fills with curious guests. Senior Project Night is easily summed up, but difficult to fully understand. It is not just an artifact of a student’s research, or a short speech, but the culmination of years of education. Students are really presenting themselves as fully prepared for the world beyond high school.
The recent full-length documentary film Most Likely to Succeed drew a lot of attention in the education world in early 2016 by shining a spotlight on a charter school with a unique structure. The movie portrayed High Tech High in San Diego as a nearly utopian vision of future-school, where students worked continuously throughout the year on a major culminating project.
The movie attracted a cult-like following among fans of Montessori schools. Groups of educators planned private screenings, wrote blogs, and posted rave reviews to Facebook that sometimes admittedly were posted before the authors even saw the movie. I was also caught up in the interest in the movie. I attended a screening at Xavier University in Cincinnati as part of their Montessori Lab School program in partnership with Cincinnati Public Schools.
The movie itself, however, was not really the main draw for educators like me. In fact, the film was prone to hyperbole and to overselling the possibility of this kind of future school sweeping the nation. At one point one of the protagonists speculates about the significance of the completion of his project by saying, “It will be the best day of my life.” As a member of the audience we felt his excitement and agony, true, but this felt a bit oversold. Perhaps what had happened was life changing for him, and would have been even without a documentarian filming his progress. The primary attraction for most of us was that Most Likely to Succeed, by drawing attention to project-based learning, had the opportunity to change even more lives by helping to explain the impact a year-long project can have on individual students.
The reality is, asking students to complete a year-long project is not the provenance of some utopian future school. Project-based learning is not a new fad set to sweep the nation. Many schools have been doing a version of this for years, Gamble Montessori and our sister school, Clark Montessori, included. The work for senior project begins at the end of the junior year and ends on this night in May, just days before graduation.
Mary, from the Gamble class of 2015, was a reserved student, who worked hard and was satisfied with the grades she received. She was well liked by her peers, but she was unlikely to speak up in a group larger than 2 or 3 of her close friends. When I first met her, she was transferring to Gamble Montessori from another local high school renowned for its academic rigor. Her initial reaction as I approached was to step behind her mother. She was not exactly shy, but rather, wary. Her academic and personal transformation while at Gamble was completely embodied in her senior project, which was an investigation of food production practices, food labeling laws, and the forces that drive our food consumption. She called it, simply, “The Ethics of Eating.”
When I asked her in August of 2016 to describe a bit of her senior project experience, Mary’s response was effusive, more than a page and a half of single-spaced written commentary in a Word document. It was clear that it made a huge impact on her, and she was excited to talk about it.
Senior Project starts in the spring of the junior year, with students doing interest inventories and investigating questions in areas that spark their passions. They travel to the Cincinnati Public Library Main Branch and learn the basics of researching from the expert research librarians. While there, they locate several sources of information and start the process of reading the research and taking careful notes over the summer. The senior team provides support days periodically during that summer so students who are struggling can get back on the right path. Students have chosen a mind-bending range of topics, from fuel-efficient cars, prostitution in Cincinnati, animal welfare laws, and the existence of angels. Students must reach out to local experts in the field and find someone willing to mentor them, or at least to provide guidance showing that the student’s work was contributing to the larger conversation in that field.
The mentors have included the following:
Music Therapist from Melodic Connections
Attorney at Ohio Innocence Project
Chemical Dependency Counselor
African Drum Teacher
Children’s Transgender Clinic Social Worker
FBI Agent in Gang Task Force
Epidemiologist and former Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa
Local Activists from Black Lives Matter and other organizations
When the school year starts, the seniors’ schedule provides an additional bell that abuts their English and social studies bells but which is used primarily for senior project work. Mary explains the intense workload this way:
I personally spent so many hours on reading parts of books, whole books, articles, magazines, and blog posts. I also watched documentary after documentary. I watched every single one that was on Netflix (and there were surprisingly a lot) and then I watched more. I loved my topic so it was easy to waste away a lot of hours digging deeper into the subject. It is impossible to calculate how many hours I studied by myself but it was a lot. The classroom provided 5 hours of work time each week and that was every week for most of the entire year … It took me about 15 hours to put my video together after I got all of the footage. The footage happened on several different days and was then later combined into the final video at the end of the school year. Talking to my mentor took up a lot of time too. Basically, this project is very time consuming but that was expected and I enjoyed every moment of it.
Everything we do at Gamble should be aligned around creating this love of learning in a student. We set out to make a school that was safe for students – not just physically safe, but safe for them emotionally and educationally. This statement from a student expresses a sentiment that can never be measured on a standardized test. This is our Super Bowl win. I hear in there the joy of learning. I hear her talking of hours spent happily exploring a fascinating idea. The Socratic method of asking questions and digging ever deeper for answers drew her in, engaged her curiosity, and created a deep passion for a topic. Within that, we taught her the skills to follow future ideas that capture her attention. This is what every parent hopes for their child to experience at school – a passion for learning.
How was senior project different from other work she had done in school?
I had to contact professionals and ask for help, I had to talk face to face with strangers, I learned how to take advice from constructive criticisms and not be offended, and I had to kindly and intellectually retaliate to people who were challenging my ideas. I think the most outstanding thing about senior project though, was that by the end I felt that it had made me a more confident, outgoing, and educated individual; and the best part was that I achieved all of that studying something I was passionate about.
Above are the words of scientific discourse, of intellectual engagement, the words of a person who is engaged in the pursuit of knowledge for the public good. To seek out ideas that challenge your current thinking is the heart of a strong and confident education. This is the “ready man” as described by Sir Francis Bacon and further explored by Samuel Johnson, who both assert that the “ready man” – the educated man ready to engage in leadership and intellectual discourse in his community – is made by conversation.
Challenges confront the students throughout the year. Occasionally a student will lose the passion for a topic, proclaiming it boring, or lose the thread of an argument. This often means they think they have run out of areas to research. Through a conference with his teachers, he will have to decide whether to revise the question, start over, or struggle through the roadblock. This is akin to a dead end in scientific inquiry, and the answer depends on the calendar and the individual. Is there time to start over? Is there any guarantee that the replacement question will prove more fruitful?
The senior team of teachers provides academic support in classes with a curriculum that overlaps some of the same ideas that students are exploring. Students writing about race find readings in psychology class that work as evidence for their research. (On the playground at lunch, older students will inevitably respond to statements about a person’s race with the quote, “Race is a social construct!”) Additionally, standard research format is taught and reinforced. One of our 2016 graduates, Syirra Roberts, reported to me that her freshman psychology teacher pulled her aside after three weeks of class and asked which high school Syirra had attended. Her test scores and classroom responses revealed a deep understanding of the topics being discussed, and her professor asked her to pass on his respect to her high school psychology teacher.
In thinking about Mary’s zeal for her topic when she delivered her speech, one could argue she put up a good show for her final grade. Was that passion real? My conversation with her occurred more than a year after graduation. Students often will tell the “whole truth” after a year away, feeling no need to dissemble in order to get a good grade or not hurt someone’s feelings. I think the answer is this: Embedded among Mary’s responses was this invitation extended to me: “If you haven’t ventured into answering the questions you have about where your food comes from (or if you don’t have questions but don’t consider yourself to be someone who knows much about the food industry) I highly encourage you to do so. It is something that is so important and there are so many things that people don’t know that they should.” The passion is real. A year later, Mary has become an advocate for others to learn more about the food process.
I learned how to take advice … and not be offended, and I had to kindly and intellectually retaliate to people who were challenging my ideas.
This could just be an extended research paper, except for Senior Project Night. Each spring, mid-May, the seniors do not merely turn in the work to a teacher to anticipate a grade. Instead, they present their work to the community. Spread throughout the gym, library, and some adjacent classrooms, each senior commandeers a table and displays his or her work. There are required elements: a visual presentation showing what they learned, a research paper, a persuasive component, a spoken summary of their work along with the ability to respond to questions about their topic, and a service requirement. Students often display some of the reference material they cited, especially books they bought. Students are required to produce something that demonstrates a deeper understanding of what they have learned. Sometimes it is a pamphlet providing important information about their topic, or it is information about a dog the student adopted and nursed back to health at a local shelter or in their own home.
The seniors’ parents are present, as are their mentors. Nearly the entire faculty drops by, as do parents from past years, and parents of younger students who are curious about the event. Dozens of students, especially juniors, make a point of attending. These guests are invited to not only sign in at each table, but also to offer feedback; this feedback then helps form a portion of the student’s final assessment.
This brings us back to that night. Students in their formal clothes, young men pulling at their collars and adjusting their ties, young ladies in dresses too formal for the typical school day. All nervously walking through the rooms, gathering the last of their materials, moving tables into place, calling a favorite aunt to give last-minute parking advice. And then it is show time.
Our seniors present their work in charts and graphs, pamphlets, tri-fold boards and every conceivable format. One year a student dressed in a yellow haz-mat suit, emerging sweaty but proud at the end of the evening. Students bring old tires and photographs. There is music and laughter, and quiet discussions as adults are confronted with the difficult topics tackled by their children. These questions have included the following:
Why is it that exotic dance/neo-burlesque, which is one of the top forms of entertainment in the world, is looked at as a degrading and/or a morally reprehensible profession for the women working in it?
When should transgender children transition socially and physically?
How does a mother’s age, mental state and lifestyle choices while pregnant affect how a baby develops in the first 6-8 weeks of life?
Is the death penalty an ethical punishment that reflects society’s views?
Why is it that people are unfairly treated based on the stigma of HIV/Aids?
Is ISIS really following Islamic Ideology?
Why do humans feel the need to be in a monogamous relationship?
Mary’s final presentation table included a crock pot of vegetarian chili (which was delicious and indistinguishable from traditional meat chili), a video of her presenting her findings, and a second video of “man on the street interviews” in downtown Cincinnati.
That’s right, the same girl who stepped behind her mother when it was time to meet her potential new principal, had gained the confidence to stop strangers on the street, ask them questions about the food they ate, and to provide on-the-spot answers while being videotaped. And here, on Senior Project Night, she confidently answered questions from every person who approached her table.
There is a moment during each Senior Project Night where I find myself drawn away from the tables and the students. I stand silent at a distance in each place our students are presenting; first in the gym, then in the library, and then in the large classroom. I allow myself to examine the whole scene in front of me as one picture. I take a long, deep breath. In this hive of activity, I hold each student momentarily in my gaze. I remember their arrival as timid 7th graders, or perhaps as anxious and wary high schoolers. I reflect on their struggles, and I note that, without exception, this night is a victory for each of them. Tonight they display the work that has been for them the hardest thing they ever imagined doing. Many admit to not believing they could do it at all. Here they are, each of them. Beautiful, proud, accomplished. I stop to see them as they are in this moment, resplendent and triumphant.
I often call moments like these “the teacher’s real payday,” and these are enough to fill the soul.
Teacher professional development has a reputation for being notoriously poor.
So often it is a top-down approach that is out of touch with the challenges of being in a classroom. But what if teachers took control of that and turned it on its head? What if teachers determined how they needed to grow and develop, and worked together to do so?
In 2013, during the after-graduation faculty celebration, my colleague, Josh, and I began discussing some of the concerns we had about our instruction. As the party wound down, and we began making our way to our cars to go home, we came to a powerful realization. Both of us had prioritized developing differentiation practices in our classrooms. Both of us were struggling with it. Both of us were frustrated with our perceived lack of progress. This discussion caused us to quite literally stop in our tracks. We spent the next hour standing on a street corner problem-solving how we could make the work easier and find greater success.
At Gamble, one of our long-time frustrations as a building has been how to support students to rise to the rigors of college preparatory, honors-level academics in an urban, public school where 70% of our students are eligible for the federal free lunch program. Like many urban, public schools, our students often come to us with below-grade level skills, poorly developed work habits, and a lack of academic buy-in. All too often, this combination of high expectations and low skills results in students with failing grades. How do we maintain high academic rigor for all students while also meeting students (especially our most-challenged ones) where they are? Is this not the crux of the conflict in most classrooms?
Although I teach 7th and 8th graders and Josh teaches 11th and 12th graders, we realized that we had both been working independently on finding solutions to this same struggle, and we extrapolated that there were likely others invested in the same work in other areas of our building.
We envisioned becoming a Montessori Secondary School where all learners are welcomed in classrooms, and where differentiation is so much a part of our instruction that it is no longer note-worthy to students. And classrooms where teachers are comfortable with meeting learners where they are and developing their skills, regardless of where that left them in proximity to standardized-test passage.
We had been unable to find a way to do this individually, but we thought we might be able to do it better with the support of each other and any other colleagues who might be interested in joining us. We approached Jack (our principal) with the idea of launching a voluntary differentiation pilot program in our building, and, after hashing out some of the details, we were given permission to broach this topic with our faculty and to elicit support from the staff of CMStep (Cincinnati Montessori Secondary Teacher Education Program).
We began by issuing this open invitation.
Additionally, we personally invited those who we felt would be most receptive. For example, Josh directly approached the intervention specialist on his team with whom he regularly collaborated, and I requested that both members of my newly-formed team join me in working on this.
Some people asked if they could earn CEUs (Continuing Education Units) for their participation. We took this request back to Jack who readily agreed to arrange this. A few other details were hashed out – how we would re-initiate the conversation in the fall, when we would schedule the first meeting, and what that agenda would look like.
Thus, from what started as a casual, street-corner discussion, a pilot project was born.
So, that’s it, right? Open the door to collaboration, the masses will come running, definitive answers will be found, and all will be well with the world. Well, no, not exactly.
Our group of volunteers met at the start of the year to establish what we wanted to accomplish together. Originally there were ten of us, but after this first meeting, we were reduced to just seven through self-selection. Initially this small number of participants felt very disappointing – where were the hoards of teachers flocking together to improve their practice? That was definitely what I had envisioned. However, in hindsight, I am convinced that our small size was one of the most critical components of our success. Joining our pilot was purely voluntary, and this ensured that only people willing to commit to doing this work in a positive and forward-thinking way joined our group. Those who didn’t share our vision opted out. This meant that while we didn’t have the numbers that I had anticipated, we also didn’t have the uncommitted, disengaged participants that I had worried about.
There is a large body of evidence suggesting that the way to shift institutional practices is to begin with the people with whom you have immediate buy-in. From their success, you will sway most others. This premise is known as the Diffusion Innovation Model and was initially purported by Everett Rogers in 1962. A large body of research supports Rogers’ theory that the spreading of new products or ideas is based on four factors: the innovation itself, human capital, time, and communication. After initiation by the “innovators,” the concept readily spreads to “early adopters” who ultimately influence the “early majority.” It is not necessary to address resistors, or the “late majority and laggards”, until there is a ground-swell of people on board who can carry them along.
Because our group was made up of volunteers who chose to work together in this way (our innovators and early adopters), we were free to develop into whatever it was that we believed would work for us. Although we were all teachers in the same building, we didn’t all work closely with one another on a regular basis. Our group represented a variety of grade levels and departments in our building – 7th and 8th grade, 11th and 12th grade, social studies, language arts, math, science, special education, and music. As a result, it was important that we developed clear expectations of our work together. The parameters that we established at our initial meeting were:
we would meet once a month
we would honor each other’s time by keeping meetings as close to an hour in length as possible
we would value our time together by committing to attend meetings
our focus would be on classroom differentiation as a means of growing all learners
we would conduct focused, non-evaluative observations of each other to improve our practice – we called these “Friendly Feedback Observations.”
In the beginning, we shared our successes and our challenges. We quickly discovered that we were already doing a lot. Just stating differentiation as an intention at our initial meeting in September had motivated each of us to work toward furthering our practice in this area. Some of our reported successes were small in-roads: providing read-aloud options on a more consistent basis, using a wider variety of instructional groupings, or allowing students with prior piano experience to branch out into guitar exploration during music class. And some of our successes were quite significant: providing weekly checklists/work plans that were uniquely targeted to students’ needs, or individualizing assessments such that each student received different questions on a physics test. But we had our share of noteworthy challenges too, and we still had a long way to go to develop what we wanted to see in our classrooms.
We noted that our challenges clustered into four areas: differentiation of assessments, differentiation of assignments, differentiation of instruction, and differentiation of expectations. By looking at it this way, we quickly realized that we were putting the cart before the horse by starting with the products (the assessments and assignments) rather than the students (the expectations).
Through our conversations, we also recognized that we were all struggling with feeling comfortable with meeting students where they were and moving them forward along a continuum, even if they didn’t ultimately reach the grade-level outcome. For all our nose-thumbing, anti-testing bravado, we felt pretty nervous about championing the idea that not all students learn the same thing at the same time and reach the same place, and somewhat blindly trusting that this wouldn’t have terrible repercussions on our standardized test scores.
It was critical to have each other to bounce ideas off of and to ensure that we were maintaining appropriate expectations coupled with appropriate supports for all of our students. Together we were able to do what none of us had been able to satisfactorily do alone. We noted gains – even incremental ones – we dug deep into what best practice could look like, and collectively, we had more courage to take risks.
And while each month, we celebrated our successes; we also took a hard look at our challenges. Halfway through that first year, we remained dissatisfied by the number of students earning failing grades. How could this be? We had worked so hard! How could all of our efforts still have not been enough to support students? Josh and Matt had further developed their co-teaching model providing additional interventions to struggling learners. Beau was regularly differentiating assignments into three levels to support all students in accessing the general education curriculum. Kim was creating five different student checklists every week in order to allow for individually targeted assignments. Steve had spent hours developing a differentiated science unit. How were our students still falling short of our expectations? What were appropriate expectations? How would we know when we reached them?
Fortunately, Barb Scholtz, CMStep Practicum Director, was supporting and challenging us in our reflective practice. When this concern came up, she simply looked at us, and with this simple question, re-committed us to our mission. She asked, “Well, are they learning?” When we answered with a confident, “Yes,” her response was, “Then, how can they be failing?”
It sounds simple, right? If they are learning, if they are progressing, then that’s all we can ask of them, right? But what about standards-based grading? What about content mastery? What about pre-requisite skills?
Nothing in education is simple. We know about Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development which notes that learning occurs just beyond the level of what students can do independently.
We know about isolating the difficulty, or focusing on a new skill without adding in additional complexities.
And, perhaps, most importantly, we know our students. We know, as professionals, and as people who interact with them every day, what we can expect from them and how far we can push them. So, yes, if they are learning, they can’t possibly be failing. But too many of them were. What were we doing wrong?
So, back to the drawing board we went to try to find answers to our many complex questions. How can we inspire students to show what they know? How do we instill a work ethic in our students? What about the wooly beast of homework? How are our students’ developmental needs and socio-economic status related to each of these issues?
We turned to research to guide us. We looked at best practices in grading policies, strategies to improve rates of homework completion, and use of student self-evaluation tools.
We also invited one another into our classrooms for what we deemed “Friendly Feedback Observations.” We asked each other, as trusted professionals, to observe specific concerns in our practice and to provide both critical and supportive feedback. This not only elicited targeted suggestions for improvement, it also allowed us to see what we were each doing really well, and what techniques we could borrow to improve our own instruction.
We adjusted and enhanced our teaching practices again and again. Each of us did that a little differently. Each of us discovered inroads. None of us got it exactly right. But all of us made progress.
What I know for sure is that because of the commitment I made by joining this group, I pushed myself harder. When we began, differentiation was something that happened sometimes in my classroom, and, as a result, it was something that was somewhat uncomfortable for my students. Today, the vast majority of assignments are differentiated, and students expect this and discuss it openly. Those conversations sound like this:
“Is this assignment differentiated?”
“Do I have the right level?”
“Can I try Developing, and if it’s too hard can I move down to Discovering?”
“Do you think I should do Adventuring today?”
“I’d like you to try the Enrichment level. I think it will be more interesting to you as long as you’re willing to put in the effort.”
Differentiation is fluid, frequent, and has become the norm for my students. There is no stigma of cleverly-titled tracking groups like “Bluebirds” and “Robins.” Rather, each day, each student works at his or her instructional level for that particular concept in that particular moment.
This shift took three years, and it wasn’t just my classroom that was profoundly impacted by the work of our pilot group. Each of the participants experienced significant changes in practice, and throughout the course of the past three years, we have continued to review the research, implement shifts, examine our own data, and repeat this cycle again and again.
Have we found all the answers? No, not yet. Probably, not ever. But that’s not really the point. Our work with differentiation has grown so much. Those of us in that original pilot group have achieved our original vision of classrooms where differentiation has become a norm. We now, of course, have bigger hopes and dreams for ourselves. Meanwhile, other members of our faculty have followed our lead, and differentiation strategies are being implemented at different levels throughout our building.
But more importantly, through our research and discussions, we are challenging each other, and through our implementation of things we’ve discussed, we are improving our practice. And, more than that, we are supporting each other and helping each other hold fast to the dream of inspiring our students and guiding them to develop into well-rounded and educated adults. Isn’t that why each of us entered this field in the first place? And, in this intense time in education, it is so easy to lose that focus. But, through collaboration with each other, we can hang on to this lofty ideal.
You can begin building this spirit of professional collaboration and growth in your building, too. Our group was dedicated to increasing differentiation practices, but any professional issue could serve as a focus for a similar discussion forum.
Here are what we’ve found to be the necessary components to making a program like this effective:
Grab the bull by the horns: whatever is the greatest challenge or frustration in your building or classroom, tackle that. Go ahead and look it in the eyes, and begin seeking solutions.
Begin by making it voluntary; there is no room for naysayers. Keep in mind that some people may need a personal invitation, but no begging. The people who decline your invitation are not ready to be part of the first-wave of your pilot.
Develop your objectives and procedures together. Focus on what you want from each other. What are your shared goals? How can you best support each other in achieving them? What limits and boundaries do people need to have respected? Along these same lines, any changes need to be approved by the group before being acted upon.
Hold structured meetings as a way to honor everyone’s time and energy. Avoid allowing this group to become a de facto lunch break or happy hour. Value the work to be done.
Resist the temptation to spend time complaining – while your group may not have a designated leader, you do need a facilitator who will lead the group toward the generation of solutions, and away from the slippery slope of negativity.
Brainstorm together – there’s no reason why people should be working on the same things in isolation. Do it together, and you’ll be more successful and more energized.
But don’t just brainstorm. Implement. Even if that means taking one baby step at a time. And, pick each other up when you fall. Because sometimes the ideas that sounded so great in theory, weren’t so great in reality. It’s easy to get discouraged, so be cheerleaders for each other.
Hold each other accountable for implementation. But remember, the goal is progress, not perfection. We used our Friendly Feedback Observations for this, but there are other ways.
Keep going. As you move forward, others will witness your success, and your influence will spread.
We have all been in those mandatory professional development workshops about which there are so many sarcastic memes.
We’ve all rolled our eyes as yet another flash-in-the-pan initiative is rolled out with great pomp and circumstance.
We’ve all sat through umpteen meetings where concerning data is shared along with a plethora of quick-fix solutions, few of which seem realistic to implement in our classrooms.
While these types of trainings are likely to continue, you need not allow them to dictate your professional growth. Think about what you want to work on in your classroom. Seek out like-minded educators in your building, and set aside time to work on this together. Dig deep. Find strategies that are feasible. Try them out. Reflect on what worked and what didn’t. And repeat this process.
This work leads to powerful, uplifting, and beneficial professional growth. All you have to do is decide what you want to work on, find others who want to work on that, too, and get started.
“The real preparation for education is the study of one’s self. The training of the teacher is something far more than the learning of ideas. It includes the training of character; it is a preparation of the spirit.” –Maria Montessori, Absorbent Mind
During each of the past three summers, I have spent several weeks working as an assistant teacher for CMStep (Cincinnati Montessori Secondary Teacher Education Program — a Secondary Montessori teacher training program.) My friends wonder why on Earth I would want to spend precious weeks of summer in this way. It’s a fair question. CMStep classes run from eight in the morning until six in the evening, and I usually bring several hours of work home with me each night as well. It requires intense effort, not much like summer at all.
But being involved with CMStep restores, reinvigorates, and re-inspires me like nothing else because I get to witness “the transformation of the teacher” — or what Montessori called, “preparation of the spirit” — on an incredibly personal and powerful level. It is a privilege and an honor to have the opportunity to watch this process unfold for the adult learners in the course. It is really quite magical.
This summer, when I came home from my first day of helping with the Curriculum Development course, my husband, Blake, greeted me as he always does, “How was your day?”
My day had been fine, but I was deeply concerned about how I was going to support one of the students in my guide group (Each adult learner is provided with a CMStep “guide” or teacher, who provides individualized support. Some guides are, like me, assistant instructors who are in turn “guided” and supervised by full instructors.)
Elizabeth was in an incredibly challenging situation. She was hired to teach math and science at a private Montessori school that is in the first year of building an adolescent program, but she had just found out that due to enrollment issues, she would have to teach language arts and social studies as well. Since her program hadn’t had a middle school before, there weren’t any identified standards or curricula, nor did she really have any materials or pacing guidelines. And on top of that, she had just graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Biology. She had no teacher training, no student teaching, no education coursework, and she was charged with essentially developing an entire adolescent program alone. And, oh, yeah, her school started in two weeks.
Blake is also a teacher (although not a Montessorian), so we regularly “talk shop.” On this day though, he had little to offer me. “Wow. That’s hard. I can’t even imagine. It’s a good thing she’s taking this class.”
“Yeah, I guess,” I replied, but I wasn’t convinced. I was remembering Elizabeth’s big eyes and the anxiety I heard in her voice as she talked about trying to tackle all that was in front of her. Quite honestly, I didn’t know how she was going to do it either.
It is not easy to become a credentialed Secondary I (grades 7-8) and Secondary II (grades 9-12) Montessori teacher. There are currently only two AMS (American Montessori Society) programs that offer these credentials – CMStep, and Houston Montessori Center. As a result, teachers come from all over to participate in this program. While most come from various parts of the United States, we have had adult learners from Puerto Rico, Canada, and even Slovenia. It is a teacher training institution that is growing by leaps and bounds.
Marta Donahoe is the visionary behind CMStep and also the founder of Clark Montessori High School(the first public secondary Montessori school in the nation). She developed CMStep initially to serve as a training center for Clark teachers. The first CMStep cohort of teachers began coursework during the summer of 2004 with just eight full-time participants. This summer, cohort 12 had forty-two enrolled adult learners.
The CMStep credentialing process is spread out over three years. It includes two summers of coursework and a practicum phase that generally begins after the first summer. The practicum phase includes three classroom observations by CMStep staff, two long-weekend workshops called “intensives,” and a year-long research project.
I learned the hard way that these classes should not be confused with typical professional development. My first set of classes started a mere two days after my hire date at Gamble, and Jack asked me if I could make myself available to take the training. I wanted to make a good impression, and I figured a couple weeks spent at a hotel or convention center watching speakers with PowerPoints while being provided with coffee, doughnuts, and boxed lunches, couldn’t be too painful. So I quickly arranged childcare and signed up for the course.
My first clue that I was entering into something different was discovering upon enrollment that there was required pre-reading — two books and a stack of articles. I had only two days to prepare; fortunately, I had already read one of the books. While the pre-reading was the first surprise, it was definitely not the last. CMStep is a far cry from traditional PD. It is, in fact, graduate level coursework compressed into one- and two-week timeframes. Not only was there pre-reading, there was also homework – lots of homework – and not a lecturer or PowerPoint in sight. And forget the doughnuts and boxed lunches – this was a different kind of training. CMStep work involves a tremendous amount of reading, deep self-reflection, academic planning, and community building.
Each course focuses on a different aspect of the expectations of a Secondary Montessori teacher. The classes are listed in order and briefly outlined here – see the CMStep website for more information
First Summer Courses
Montessori Philosophy — taught by Marta Donahoe and Katie Keller Wood, CMStep’s current co-directors, this course is a heavy reading course which submerses participants in the richness and depth of Montessori pedagogy and the needs of the adolescent.
Introduction to Curriculum – focuses on the 6-9 (grades 1-3) and 9-12 (grades 4-6) Montessori classrooms and materials, as these are the building blocks to an adolescent program
Erdkinder – Maria Montessori spoke of adolescents as Erdkinder (Earth’s Children), and she believed that they are best served through hands-on work in the natural world. The Erdkinder course is a 5 day overnight experience that models this type of experience. Participants delve deep into the concepts of stewardship and community building.
Curriculum Development – This is the first of the three “product-heavy” courses. In this two-week class, participants must craft the major components for a Montessori “cycle of study” – most commonly understood as a quarter’s worth of instructional content which is tied together by an over-arching theme.
Second Summer Courses
Pedagogy of Place – The first of the second summer courses focuses on the importance of well-constructed real-world experiences in the Montessori classroom. Adult learners participate in a neighborhood study (or “urban Erdkinder”) while simultaneously designing all parts of a comprehensive field study experience for their own students.
Structure and Organization – This final course asks participants to examine their “problems of practice,” and to develop 12 products, structures, or organizational systems that are rooted in Montessori philosophy, to help address these problems.
Two on-line courses, Montessori Overview and Mindfulness Fundamentals, are also required for credentialing.
Although I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I began my CMStep journey, I never once looked back, or found myself pining for the days of doughnuts, boxed lunches, and Powerpoints. This professional development was unbelievably challenging and fatiguing, but it was so much more powerful and so much more immediately useable than typical teacher trainings.
I can quite honestly say that the CMStep program is the best educational coursework I have ever experienced, including both my undergraduate and graduate classes. It is powerful on a number of levels: the instructed content is of excellent quality, each course models the best practices of an adolescent classroom, the required work is based on real-classroom needs as determined by the individual adult learner, and the intensity of the work coupled with an intentional crafting of community results in the development of a profound connection among learners. All of this taken together is what leads toward transformation of the teacher. This is where the magic lies.
But magic doesn’t happen all at once. I met one-on-one with Elizabeth nearly daily during our two weeks together. She told me the same things each day: she was overwhelmed by the work — without an education background, she didn’t have any schema for how to tackle the tasks — and she had so much to do to get her classroom and curriculum ready that she was considering leaving the CMStep program and heading home. I tried to encourage her and give her the information she needed without overwhelming her further, but every evening after dismissal I worried about her. Despite her anxiety and my concerns, each morning, I would wake up to an inbox full of beautifully crafted work from her. When I commented on this, she simply said, “Yes, but I’m doing the easiest pieces first.”
One day, she sat down next to me and said, “I have to do the Lesson Plan assignments, and I don’t know what a lesson plan looks like; I’ve never seen one before.” We talked about requirements and formatting options. I wasn’t sure I had been clear enough, but the next morning I had an email titled, “My Very First Lesson Plan,” and it was lovely. We continued this way until just two days before the end of the course. Elizabeth’s demeanor was unchanged despite the incredible progress she had made in a week and a half. All she had left to complete was the project assignment and two weeks of student checklists. Admittedly, these are both huge tasks.
I knew why she found these pieces so intimidating. They were the parts she most desperately needed. Every time we spoke, she discussed her powerful need to know exactly what she would be doing with her students. These final components would make at least some of this concrete, and that is what would help her the most. Because of this, not knowing how to begin was extremely intimidating. She was just 48 hours from completing the first summer’s coursework, and she was still feeling so overwhelmed that quitting seemed like a viable option.
That night she sent me her completed project assignment – beautiful, as always. The next morning, I held my breath as I opened her checklist email. As I scrolled through page after page of student checklists that included well-constructed assignments differentiated by choice and by level for all four subject areas for two full weeks, my eyes filled with tears. She had done it! Not only had she finished all the required tasks for her CMStep coursework, she had given herself what she needed most – a clear step-by-step plan of what she was going to teach in her classroom during the first two weeks of school, and a structure that she could use to plan for the remainder of the year.
When she arrived at class that day, she looked like an entirely different person. Her eyes sparkled, and, for the first time, she was smiling. She had proven to herself that she could indeed do this, and she was nothing short of transformed. I should have known better than to worry so much. This happens every summer – we just have to remember to “Trust the Process,” it is designed to elicit transformation.
Elizabeth’s situation was notably unique; most of our adult learners are not facing so many challenges all at once, but the work is intense for each of them. This intensity is an important part of the transformation. I tell them that, as their guide, my job is to push them past their perceived limits. Certainly, this yields better work, but, beyond that, it shows them what they are capable of. Walking the line between supporting them in extending themselves and pushing them too far can be challenging.
As adults, we are not used to receiving critical feedback, and we are certainly rarely asked to re-do tasks. Both of these things are prevalent in CMStep, and this is a humbling experience. I try to remember my own sensitivity about this when I was the adult learner, rather than the guide. (I, too, had to redo many assignments, and I, too, bristled in response.) Every summer, I learn a great deal from Barb Scholtz, one of my mentor teachers and CMStep’s Practicum Director. She reminds me to make gentle suggestions couched in phrases like, “Consider…” or “You may wish to . . .” This careful feedback invites and counsels rather than demands, and it helps CMStep students push themselves to generate exemplary work.
Lee, a teacher at an established Montessori school in British Columbia, Canada is a phenomenal example of what happens in the pressure cooker of high expectations and gentle pushing. Like most, he struggled in the initial days with being asked to revise and redo his work, but by the second week, he had found his groove, and his work was phenomenal. Here is part of his reflection at the end of course: “At first, it was fairly evident that I felt overwhelmed. But then I quickly realized that my guide was truly there to help and support me, which lifted my spirits. Once I began to submit component work and receive feedback, I felt better and better with each passing day. The feedback was kind, illuminating, and constructive, but worded in a way that filled me with a sense of ease. This in turn increased my motivation to produce quality work, and to make the adaptations and edits.” THIS is CMStep – incredibly high expectations and workload coupled with nurturing support. And Lee’s process is what always happens with each adult learner. This is the transformative magic.
And what’s happening alongside, and in the background, of all of this work, is the cohesion of a group of Montessori teachers from around the country, and even the world, who are experiencing all of this together, and transforming together, and supporting each other together, and developing an incredibly powerful community together. When they leave CMStep and return to their school buildings, they will do these same things in their classrooms of adolescents.
Brandt Smith, another one of my mentors and a long-time CMStep instructor, said it best, “They may not remember ANY of the details, but do you know what every one of them knows? They know the taste of Community. Like a perfectly ripe peach or their first taste of ice cream, they KNOW the taste of Community! And from now on, everywhere they go, they’ll recognize the taste when it crops up. They’ll catch little whiffs of it, and they’ll follow their noses to try and find it! They may not recognize its absence, at least not right away. But when they start to interact with a group of people who support each other and care about each other – they’ll KNOW on a deep, personal level – they’ll recognize that taste and they choose to be a part of it because they know it’s a part of who they are. And they’ll rediscover their own gifts as they grow and contribute to that Community! THAT’S what they leave here with! And the World will be a better place because of that!”
And that’s the other part of the magic. The building of community that is created in CMStep is taken back to classrooms and to schools. This magic spreads from teachers to students, and slowly and over time, perhaps we can begin to change the world – one teacher, one classroom, one community at a time.
It always seemed to happen this way: The parents left the room at the end of the meeting, and walked down the hallway. We resumed our team meeting, addressing the next issue on the agenda. Someone would exclaim, “Rats! Forgot to ask them about the permission slip for the field trip!” And he or she would rush to the door, but the parents were gone.
Or maybe we had forgotten to explain a key upcoming homework assignment, or mention an important project deadline.
This was a chronic experience for each of the teacher teams I was on at Hughes Center. And it turns out that forgetting things is a problem for people in other professions too. I learned a simple and effective solution to this vexing problem in a book about making detailed lists, and following them in order: The Checklist Manifesto.
Atul Gawande, a renowned surgeon and author, starts The Checklist Manifesto by differentiating between errors made in the face of great complexity (because we do not know enough), and errors made by ineptitude (because we fail to access or use what we do know). Speaking from his profession as a surgeon, great complexity is a reality of his daily work. We encounter similar complexity as educators – what is the necessary preparation to help a student understand or create an appropriate metaphor, or to know when to solve a problem using the quadratic formula? These are complex, but knowable. As professionals in a particular discipline, we should be expected to have a grasp of the solutions to these intellectual progressions. This is where our expertise is absolutely necessary and irreducible. Checklists cannot necessarily help with this. Errors of ineptitude or oversight, however, are the kinds of errors that checklists are designed to eliminate. Procedures need to happen in a certain order, and doing them that way creates better outcomes.
I picked up a newer version of The Checklist Manifesto at a book store last year, and saw that it had a new introduction. Though I had read the book years before, I was immediately drawn into the narrative, demonstrating how a checklist was instrumental in helping to safely (and famously) crash land a plane into the Potomac River. More on that later, as I talk more about the book that helped me see the world of my work completely differently. Principals and teachers inhabit a world of tremendous complexity. There are layers of expectations placed on their students, dozens of types of assessments, and countless instructional tools and techniques at their disposal to help their students master the skills necessary for promotion. Within this complexity, there are some processes that repeat somewhat endlessly into the future, processes contained within a single class period, a day, a week, a quarter, a semester and even a year. There are right ways to do many of these regular processes. Checklists are, in this complex environment, a remarkably simple way to make sure we are doing the important things right.
Checklists to help with routine events
In 2012, as part of training for principals in Cincinnati Public Schools, a member of the Board of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital spoke about the mistakes made by doctors at the hospital. They had a patient mortality rate of 4.6% in 2001, which had been a very slight improvement on the year before. This placed them above the middle of the pack for similar hospitals, and had been a point of some pride for earlier leadership. However, they had become dissatisfied with being in the middle of the pack relative to the percentage of children dying in their care. Each number was a tragedy, and there was no excuse for not taking effective measures to prevent them. The Board at Children’s was especially concerned to note that many of these deaths were, in their estimation, preventable. Doctors administering incorrect medicines or doses, doctors and nurses making mistakes that resulted in infections, such as pneumonia acquired while on a ventilator. They instituted a series of reforms which included checklists. At the end of 2011, their mortality rate had been cut dramatically.
Gwande provides as an example a different institution, Johns Hopkins hospital, where checklists were instituted for a specific common ventilator procedure. In addition to a clear set of steps posted where all could see them, nurses were given the unusual authority to stop the procedure if a step was missed. Prior to the implementation of the checklist, secondary infections had been the leading cause of complications and deaths at one of the world’s most prestigious medical facilities. This simple addition nearly eliminated those infections.
Checklists are, in this complex environment, a remarkably simple way to make sure we are doing the important things right.
So checklists can help eliminate mistakes as we repeatedly complete important procedures. An example of an academic use for routines is the weekly checklist in the structured classroom. In a typical classroom, a child might receive one or two assignments each day, with varying due dates. Assignments may even be dispensed one at a time. However, a checklist is an important tool in helping a child develop skills related to managing time and work. The Montessori weekly checklist enumerates planned lessons and activities, such as regular reading time for students to encounter challenging and engaging material, teacher-led mini-lessons to provide new content, and shelfwork to help each student develop existing skills. The checklist format aids the student in utilizing her time wisely to complete the necessary work. Powerfully, the checklist in this case serves the “patient” and the “doctor” equally, as utilizing the format from week to week ensures that the necessary modes of instruction are regularly used, instead of a teacher falling back on a favorite or comfortable routine or lesson format.
Checklists to help with infrequent events
The popular rock band Van Halen’s live performances included massive amplifiers, fireworks, lights, and electric and audio cables spread across entire stadiums. Their shows were memorable, but their demands as a band were legendary and one was individually ridiculous: they demanded M&Ms at every show, with all the brown ones picked out. Their manager explained to Dr. Gawande that it was not because they were pampered celebrities with an aversion to brown candies. Instead, their demanding checklist was created to make sure that the performers and fans were safe on stage every night. There was a lot that could go wrong, especially as the lead singer was hoisted in a harness for a spectacular entry, and fans stood near scaffolding holding massive audio equipment – and did I mention fireworks, water, and electricity? The tour double-checked everything the day they arrived; if there were brown M&Ms in the bowl, they would know that the venue did not pay attention to the details. It was not a frivolous demand; it was a fail-safe to ensure that no one’s safety was at risk.
So checklists can help make sure that an infrequent or even one-time event, such as a Van Halen show in your local arena, happens flawlessly.
I explained earlier that Gawande said checklists could help with errors of ineptitude or oversight, where someone makes a mistake in carrying out a familiar procedure. This is the team meeting problem. We would enter a conversation with a specific objective, and the intention to cover one or two items in particular, such as poor grades, or a particular disciplinary incident. The conversation would address the big issue, and the parent might bring up new and important information. We would wander off-task, fully engaged in the new direction of the conversation. These can be contentious meetings, full of hurt feelings and embarrassment for students and adults alike. It is understandable that everyone involved might forget other, less significant topics momentarily. Perhaps we missed a signature on a permission slip for an upcoming trip, or we failed to make sure the family could access the online gradebook.
Inspired by this book, and motivated by our repeated experience, we created a team meeting checklist. We made a simple list on the bottom of the page, charting the things we might need to cover in a conference. We used our old meeting form with this small addition and we found that we forgot less, and accomplished more, than we had before just by assigning one person to run through the checklist at the end of the meeting, to ensure we hit each topic.
This checklisted sequence of questions works to prevent anger and withdrawal just like a correct sequence of events in a hospital helps to prevent infection.
Okay, so maybe conferences are not life-and-death situations on the surface. And they definitely are not rock-n-roll concerts. However, they can be important moments in a child’s education, and key pivot points in the relationship between a family and the school. Getting things right in the conference – covering the important issues fully, addressing critical needs, and valuing the family’s time – is an important part of building trust and making sure that the student’s needs are met. There are a finite number of things that can potentially be covered in a conference, which have a seemingly infinite number of permutations. A checklist like the one here is an investment in the golden triangle – the relationship between the student, teacher, and parent.
Checklists to help in moments of conflict or crisis
Pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger will be the first to tell you that he finds it odd to be famous as a pilot because he crashed a plane. As his passenger jet lifted off from LaGuardia airport in 2009, it struck a flock of geese, causing damage to both jet engines. There could have been dozens of causes. The airline industry, which has an understandable focus on safety, has used checklists for years, and they had one for just this situation. Sully and his copilot were able to speed twice through this troubleshooting checklist before deciding they needed to look for the safest possible place to land a plane in Manhattan. He chose the Hudson River, and there were – famously – no deaths. He attributes his clear thinking to his familiarity with the checklist. The process for eliminating all possible causes reduced his panic and allowed him the time to find the best place to crash land.
Checklists can not only be used to make sure that the necessary steps all happen in a moment of high tension or anxiety, they can also work to make sure that steps happen in the correct order. At Gamble Montessori high school, we realized that when students returned from suspension, that they felt dislocated from the school – out of touch with what they had missed in class, and still feeling as if their teachers distrusted or disliked them because of the incident. So we instituted a return conference checklist, which we explain in more detail in our post Welcome Back. We had learned from experience that these steps had to happen in a certain order. Too often, these conferences after an incident immediately start with a description from someone at the school of what happened. The student often would react one of two ways: they would either dispute the details of what was being said, or they would sit in silence and mentally remove themselves from the conference. We know that a student in this mindset will not be a partner in problem-solving for the future. So we turned the old, ineffective conference model on its head. Our checklist starts with a non-negotiable step where every adult at the table offers a strength that they see in the child. Only later in the conference is there a brief description of the incident followed not with accusations and a re-hashing of the event, but with everyone involved being asked to partner in helping the student be successful moving forward.
This checklisted sequence of questions works to prevent anger and withdrawal just like a correct sequence of events in a hospital helps to prevent infection. The student, having been welcomed back with a shared awareness and acknowledgement of his strengths, gets to become a partner in problem-solving how to help himself be successful moving forward. The intentional sequence of events works to help students return to school ready to learn.
Ordered checklists, simple lists of routines and important processes, are tremendously useful in many professional situations, including education. Whether in routine events, infrequent occurrences, or moments of conflict, having a list of the correct sequence of steps to try can help make sure we reach the best possible outcome for all involved.
Perhaps there are processes for which you already use effective checklists, or there are processes at your school that need to be “checklisted.”
We would love to hear your ideas in the comments below.
 “Newsroom.” Cincinnati Children’s Earns National Award for Patient Safety. Jim Feuer, n.d. Web. 30 July 2016.