A few weeks ago, I was walking through one of our high school hallways at the bell change. As teenage bodies spilled out of doorways and began making their way to their next class, I was quickly surrounded by former students looking for hugs. After wrapping my arms around the first two or three, I heard an approaching student ask, “Can I get one, too?” I laughed and replied, “Of course. You belong to me.” This was immediately followed by a deep voice coming from down the hallway, “What about me? Do I belong to you, too?” I looked to see who the speaker was and saw Malcolm, a senior football star, who I had taught four years earlier in the eighth grade. “Yes, absolutely,” I began to respond, when I was interrupted by a different voice coming from the other direction, “I get one first. I belonged to her before you did.” Ethan, another senior, was right. I had taught him in the seventh grade. He had, indeed, belonged to me first.
They all belong to me. I suspect that most teachers feel this way about their students. After all, we spend time with them every day for most of a year, or in the case of Montessori teachers, for two or even three years. Our students belong to us because we know who they are.
And knowing who they are is critical for understanding what they need from us. What they need from us in order to make academic gains. What they need from us in order to develop personal responsibility and leadership skills. And what they need from us in order to get through difficult situations or interactions.
Being aware of the importance of knowing my students left me in a quagmire, however, at an important moment in my career.
That was a student’s response when I told my Algebra class about an upcoming test. My first reaction was to be flabbergasted. “What do you mean is it for a grade? It’s a test. Of course it’s for a grade!” But then suddenly I understood.
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?
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.
The other day you asked me an important question, and I gave you a bad half-answer (or no answer at all, really.) Please accept my apology, and allow me to fully answer your question.
You asked me, essentially: “More than half of my students failed my test, what should I do?” You also gave me some additional information. It seemed important in the moment, and it sounded persuasive, or perhaps it was meant to bias me in one direction. You said, “they had enough time to study, “and you added that “they did not complete their work,” etc. I think I knew what you wanted me to say. And I choked.
Perhaps you offered that additional information about their lack of preparation as prevention against the scariest possible answer, which meant undoing tomorrow’s lesson plan, and starting from scratch.
More likely, you were speaking as you have heard your own teachers speak in the past. You wanted to send the same message you received as a student: hard work is important; the grade you got is the grade you earned.
And maybe your question was, “Am I teaching poorly? Am I doing a bad job?”
There is a right answer, actually several, and I did not give it, or any of them.
At many schools, the last day of the school year tends to be kind of a wasted day – a day spent packing up boxes, watching a video, or talking about summer plans. Attendance is often sparse as many students chose to begin their summer vacation a day early.
In Gamble’s middle school classrooms, however, the last day of school serves as both our fourth quarter cycle wrap-ups and our wrap-up for the year as a whole. Rarely are students absent.
Last year, on the last day of school, my students wrapped up our “Change” cycle with a school-wide carnival fundraiser. You can read about it here. While the carnival was truly an amazing experience, holding it on the last day of school made me a bit worried.
Would we be able to clean up everything in time to hold our traditional end of the year ceremony? Would we be able to capture students’ attention after such a high-energy experience? Would we, as teachers, be able to shift the tone and focus of the day after the exhaustion of managing a carnival for several hours? After all the fun and excitement, would students even be interested in sitting down for a closing circle?
As usual, I shouldn’t have worried.
Many students approached me throughout the day and asked questions like, “Are we going to have time for a closing?” “We are going to end in circle, right?” and “We’re not just going to dismiss from the carnival, are we?”
Each spring, 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 hand-on school, including 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 in a well-made documentary, it is true that I felt his excitement and agony. However, this felt a bit oversold. Perhaps what had happened was life changing for him. This sense was heightened by his efforts being made public for all to see. The effort of completing this year-long project would have been an important event for this young man 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 that project-based learning can have on individual students.
The reality is, asking students to complete a major capstone 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.
When I first became a parent, I had so many questions and so much self-doubt. Every decision seemed so important and so fraught with risk. What exactly should I be doing when, and why? So like any good student, I went looking for the definitive text book on parenting.
There is an overwhelming plethora of information out there. Every bookstore seems to have an entire section devoted exclusively to books on how to parent.
“How exciting!” I initially thought. “The answers are in these books; I just have to read them — all of them.”
It did not take long to discover that while there were what some would call “answers” to be found in these books, these often directly conflicted with one another.
“Feed your baby on demand” vs. “Acclimate your baby to a feeding schedule.”
“Sleep with your baby” vs. “Never, ever sleep with your baby.”
“Practice ‘baby-wearing’” vs. “Put your baby down, so he gets used to entertaining himself.”
“Pick up a crying baby” vs. “Let your baby ‘cry it out.’”
The list goes on and on. My quest for the “Baby Care Answer Key” proved to be both endlessly frustrating and futile. It took me ten months to finally give up on finding it. By then I was exhausted, but I settled on the following advice.
Listen to your baby
Trust your judgement
You know more than you think you do
Not a very precise set of guidelines, but my children are currently ages 17 and 13, and so far, it doesn’t appear that I have ruined them for life. Can we agree that counts as some semblance of success?
Thankfully, I no longer have the raising of babies to worry about. However, throughout my career as an educator, I have found myself consistently drawn toward leadership. And when I reflect on my development as a leader, and how I have approached this growth, it eerily resembles what becoming a parent felt like.
As a team leader, I feel responsible for the success and health of my team in much the same way that I felt about raising my children. And I feel the weight and worry of potential mistakes in much the same way as well.
Every decision seems so important and so fraught with risk. What exactly should I be doing when, and why? So like any good student, I have been looking for the definitive text book on leadership.
There is an overwhelming plethora of information out there. Every bookstore seems to have an entire section devoted exclusively to books on how to lead.
“How exciting!” I initially thought. “The answers are in these books; I just have to read them — all of them.”
But, of course, just like books on parenting, books on leadership all seem to have different, and sometimes conflicting, advice.
Should leaders strive to hear all voices and work toward consensus, or identify clear goals and push others to achieve them?
Does effective team building happen through activities that help people like and trust one another, or through the struggle and conflict of putting challenging ideas on the table?
Do institutions function best when they are run as top-down or bottom-up?
The answer to all of these questions appears to be, “yes,” … depending on who you ask.
I have read many books about leadership, and each one seems to have its own take on the subject, leaving me with no clear answers. However, these three books stand out as being the most influential for me.
Daring Greatly by Brené Brown
Conversational Capacity by Craig Weber
A Failure of Nerve by Edwin H. Friedman
They are presented here in the order in which I read them. This is notable, as this mirrors the level of personal challenge that I found within them.
Brené Brown’s work was the most accessible for me, as in many ways she “speaks my language.” Craig Weber pushed me to deeper self-reflection and to identifying my growth edge. Edwin Friedman challenged seemingly everything that I thought I knew to be true about good leadership, and in some ways turned it upside down.
It is not possible to fully explore the depth of each of these author’s work here; however, I have attempted to capture some of the most salient points.
In Daring Greatly, Brené Brown defines a leader as, “anyone who holds him- or her- self accountable for finding potential in people and processes.” (185) She indicates that this potential should be channeled into cultivating positive change, or what she dubs, “Minding the Gap.” She defines this as working toward reducing the difference between the Aspirational Values of an institution – those values that we espouse and that represent our best intentions – and the Practiced Values of an institution – how we actually think, behave, and feel.
Brown recognizes that working toward this alignment is a challenging, and potentially uncomfortable, task. She notes that true leadership is scarce because being uncomfortable is a job requirement of the role. She writes, “If you’re not uncomfortable in your work as a leader, it’s almost certain you’re not reaching your potential as a leader.” (211)
Fortunately, although the work may be uncomfortable, Brown provides some insights into how to support teams in the challenges of growth and learning. She describes this as an inherently vulnerable process, as to learn and grow, one must be willing to risk failure. She also examines the critical role of constructive feedback, noting that people are “desperate” for feedback that inspires growth and engagement. (198)
Accepting feedback, growing, learning, and changing are all risky business. In order for people to be willing to take on these risks, they must be supported by healthy organizations.
Brown describes healthy organizational cultures as places where:
Empathy is a valued asset
Accountability is an expectation rather than an exception
The need for belonging is not used as leverage and social control
In the absence of this type of safe space, people will disengage in order to protect themselves – they will stop showing up, stop contributing, and stop caring. This disengagement is a form of institutional crisis. To support leaders in avoiding this scenario, Brown provides this “Leadership Manifesto” for guidance.
In Conversational Capacity, (which I’ve written about previously here) Craig Weber agrees with Brown’s assertion that leadership requires discomfort. He, too, focuses on the importance of managing the human side of teams, but he defines the most critical aspect of this as the development of what he calls conversational capacity. He defines this as “the ability to have open, balanced, nondefensive dialogue about tough subjects and in challenging circumstances.” (15)
From his perspective, a healthy institutional culture “embraces productive conflict and a willingness to disagree, publicly and rigorously,” and is “strong enough to withstand clashing viewpoints and challenging questions.” (19) Weber asserts that it is only through the intentional cultivation of conversational capacity that this can occur, and it is the leader’s responsibility to develop this within the team.
Weber identifies a continuum of responses to challenges, such that minimizing (or low candor) behaviors exist at one end of this spectrum while winning (or low curiosity) behaviors exist at the other. He indicates that the way to develop conversational capacity, or work toward the “sweet spot” found in the center of the continuum, is to work against one’s natural tendency to “minimize” or to “win” in the face of challenging issues.
He notes that when conversational capacity is not well-developed:
We remain silent when we should speak up
We argue when we should cooperate
We downplay our concerns when we should blurt them out (27)
Like Brown, Weber notes that in the absence of conversational capacity, we are risking institutional crisis.
To examine the various ways this crisis can appear, Jack synthesized Weber’s “sweet spot” continuum with the related Heat-Light balance described in Meeting Wise by Boudett and City (which Jack has previously written about here).
Jack created this graphic which examines the ways in which being unbalanced relative to minimizing, winning, heat, and chill can lead to passive-aggression, direct aggression, sabotage, and shut down – each of which are damaging to institutions and pull teams out of the “sweet spot” or the “light” in which effective and positive change can occur.
A Failure of Nerve
Although both Brown and Weber note the importance of leadership for the health of an institution, neither writes in as strong language about this as Friedman does in A Failure of Nerve (which Jack has previously written about here.)
Friedman asserts that when institutions are not functioning well, it is always due to a failure of nerve among its leaders.(2) He describes this “nerve” as self-differentiation – or having clarity about one’s own goals, as demonstrated through a focus on strength rather than pathology, challenge rather than comfort, and taking definitive stands rather than seeking consensus.
He boldly claims that leaders must not be “peace-mongers,” who attempt to “regulate their institutions through love, insight, role-modeling, inculcation of values, and striving for consensus.”(12) He states that working toward consensus leads to sandbagging and sabotage by team members who are not aligned with the leader’s identified goals.
In accordance with this, he suggests that the way to change institutions is to work with the motivated members of that institution rather than focusing on the recalcitrant members. He indicates that by orienting one’s focus toward those who are not in alignment with the institution’s mission and goals, and attempting to get them on board through seeking compromise and consensus, the institution itself becomes weaker.
Friedman suggests that the way to strength is to consistently engage members of an institutional community who operate in alignment with the institution’s mission and goals. By shifting to a focus on strength, rather than weakness, recalcitrant members who want to remain a part of the institution have to adapt to the established community, rather than requiring the institution to adjust to the expectations of the recalcitrant members.
Friedman believes that a lack of self-differentiation among leadership, or in other words confusion around the goals, culture, and expectations of an institution, leads to systemic anxiety. And that this anxiety causes reactivity – both in terms of intense emotionality and dogged passivity – among its members.
Counter to the common understanding of job stress, Friedman believes that it is not unrelieved hard work that is the root cause of burnout, but rather it is chronic, systemic anxiety that is to blame.
Once again, he identifies self-differentiation of leadership as the antidote for chronic anxiety. He calls on leaders to be both present and non-anxious relative to the challenges of their institutions. Noting that while it is easy to be non-present and non-anxious, or conversely, present and anxious, in the face of difficulty, he instead prescribes that leaders become “transformers,” who allow the current of adversity to run through them without getting zapped. They reduce the anxiety of the institution by the nature of their own presence, by their self-differentiation, as defined above.
Friedman explores leadership through a lens that at first glance seems different from anyone else. However, like Weber, he identifies continuums and the need to find the center between the extremes, and like Brown, he focuses on the importance of establishing a safe, institutional space, which he defines as one that is resistant to anxiety.
Friedman prescribes perhaps the most difficult solution, indicating that self-differentiation is demonstrated through finding the balance between these ten indicators or “tensions” during times of institutional crisis.
Each of the above texts focuses on the inherent challenges of leadership and the difficulty of leading well. Each delineates the risks to an institution in the absence of effective leadership. Each indicates that the difference between success and failure lies in the hands of an institution’s leaders. That is a heavy responsibility to bear.
Brown charges leaders with gently guiding others to “dare greatly.” Weber challenges leaders to work to build “conversational capacity” in themselves and others. And Friedman insists that leaders tackle the difficulty of “self-differentiation.”
While none of these books provided me with the clear, definitive, and, dare I say, easy, answers that I have been seeking, each elucidates pitfalls of leadership and provides suggested remedies. Each has informed the way in which I lead.
Like in parenting, I have come to the devastating conclusion that there are no simple solutions, and that there’s no singular right way.
Like in parenting, I’ve come to believe that the following is true:
Listen to your team (Weber)
Trust your judgement (Friedman)
You know more than you think you do (Brown)
So based on that, this summer I spent some time constructing my own model of what I believe to be the fundamental components of good leadership. In my model, each of the bottom layers serves as the foundation for the ones above it, and each is a prerequisite for the success of the subsequent layers.
I’d like to assert that if these six components are implemented with fidelity, leadership will be easy and all will be well within an institution. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s the case.
As Jack frequently reminds me, “We work with people, and people are messy.” Every team has its own unique set of strengths, challenges, and needs. Every situation is different, and requires a unique response. Although I desperately long for the formula that says, “If x happens, then do y,” and to have that formula elicit a successful outcome every time, this is a utopian ideal that is not rooted in reality.
Leadership is hard, and I have become convinced that it is more about process than it is about product. So I will continue reading books, asking question, mulling things over, and muddling through the messy morass of team development and institutional health. Currently, I have more questions than answers; perhaps someday, the angel of experience will bless me with more answers than questions.
If, when you hear this you begin singing, “with the kids jingle belling and everyone telling you be of good cheer,” then you are not a teacher.
Staples has ruined this traditional Christmas carol for teachers forever. I can nearly guarantee that every teacher hears the next line as “They’re going back!”
Back to School that is.
Ahhh, back to school. A time of year fraught with emotion for students and teachers alike. Here in Ohio, the back to school advertising frenzy begins on July 5th. Yes, July 5th – the day after Independence Day.
We’re not even quite halfway through summer vacation when we are told to start gearing up for the return to school.
This is particularly cruel as I’m not sure a teacher exists who doesn’t experience back to school nightmares. These are quintessential anxiety dreams that generally involve being late to class or unprepared – no lesson plan, no attendance list, no materials, etc. In the really terrifying versions of these nightmares, the teacher is also naked – talk about waking up in a cold sweat!
Back to School is such a tumultuous time of year. Although many decades have transpired since the long summer days of my childhood, they still evoke powerful memories, and when I think of the end of summer, the loss I feel is reminiscent of those summers:
Long afternoons that melted into evenings where it stayed light until 9:30 — which was about when our parents started calling us to come inside,
Carefree summer days when we held contests to see who could stand barefoot on the hot asphalt the longest,
Evenings spent catching lightning bugs in a jar that we kept by our bedsides overnight,
Even the air was redolent with exuberance — full of the sounds of cicadas by day and crickets by night.
This romanticization is perhaps equaled only by my powerful memories of the first days of school each fall:
The smell of fresh floor wax that seems to be the same in school buildings everywhere,
The anxiety and excitement of meeting a new teacher and entering a new classroom,
The thrill of a full set of brand-new school supplies,
The joy of seeing your name carefully written on a sticker on your desk, perhaps accompanied by a number line whose ends had not yet started to curl up.
That classroom was waiting for you. Waiting expectantly full of optimism and hope of a new beginning, a fresh start.
It was these nostalgic first day of school images that flashed through my mind when, this summer, I came across these words written on a Facebook page of a teacher group I belong to:
“Has anyone done ‘work to rule’ at the start of school? I’m the VP of our union. Need ideas to motivate elementary teachers to not set up classrooms before school starts. Looking for ideas of how to survive the first day in boxes, success stories or ways to start school with a blank slate.”
“Work to rule,” meaning only do what is explicitly stated in the contract – nothing more.
“Work to rule,” meaning that if you aren’t directly paid for time spent setting up your classroom, then don’t set it up.
I have always been a fiercely proud union member. I believe in the importance of unions, and have served in various union roles throughout my career. But this statement left me feeling sad and embarrassed and disappointed all at once.
To be fair, the person who posted this does not belong to my local union and doesn’t even live in my state. I know that there are teachers elsewhere who are struggling with low wages and excessive requirements that are far beyond anything that I have ever had to deal with. I am slow to judge because there may be extenuating circumstances, of which I am unaware, that require such drastic action.
What bothered me perhaps more than the post itself was that within just a few hours, this statement had 141 comments from teachers all around the country, most of which were supportive of this strategy.
I simply can’t get past my mental image of the children who walk into a classroom that hasn’t been prepared. A classroom where materials are still in boxes. A classroom that is simply not ready for the students’ arrival.
A classroom like that cannot possibly evoke the expectant hope and optimism that I remember so vividly from my own days as a student.
Not only does this lack of a prepared environment do the students a disservice, it does a terrible disservice to the teacher of that classroom as well, for an unstructured, unwelcoming start of the school year bodes ill for the months that follow.
Starting the school year off on the right foot is critically important, and having a well-prepared classroom environment is a major contributing factor for this. Every classroom is unique in how it is set up, and there are many right ways. Each teacher spends countless hours getting it just the way he or she wants it, with every item carefully in place prior to the ringing of that bell that marks the initiation of a new school year.
There is reason to believe that this intentional and thoughtful classroom design has significant benefits. A recent study funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council found that 16% of the positive or negative variations in student learning outcomes could be attributed to the physical characteristics of the classroom. Of this, 25% of these achievement differences were attributed to individualization and flexibility in the environment, and another 25% was linked to an appropriate level of stimulation (complexity and color) in the classroom. This is good news as these are elements of the classroom that are completely within a teacher’s control.
The results of this study indicate that students learn better in classrooms where there are a variety of available learning spaces and where student influence is observable through displays of work and student-created decorative elements.
Additionally visual stimulation should be neither too high nor too low. Décor should be limited to approximately 50-75% of wall space. Calming background colors with the use of complementary or bright colors as accents was found to be most effective.
Creating a classroom best-designed for learning is a relatively simple and effective way to make teaching a little bit easier. The short-term investment of time, effort, and money has long-term gains.
Whether your school year is yet to begin or whether you have already done most of the heavy lifting of classroom preparation, it is important to examine the design of your classroom to ensure that it best meets your needs and those of your students.
And, yes, I know that for many of us our rooms are overcrowded, our furnishings shoddy, and the extra touches that create a welcoming atmosphere typically must be paid for out of our own pockets.
Is this fair? No, of course not. But it is the reality for many, perhaps most, of us. Consider the number of hours each day that you and your students will spend in your classroom. Generally, this amounts to about 50% of one’s waking hours. Making that space more pleasant is worth it for all parties involved.
As part of my research for this post, I perused the book What’s in Your Space: 5 Steps for Better School and Classroom Design. It’s a drool-worthy book – sharing images of a high-end, high-tech, student-centered new construction.
The pictures in that book look nothing like what exists in most school buildings.
As a result, I initially set the book aside as an impossible ideal, but then I returned to it, turning directly to the section titled, “Find Ways to Make This Shift Even When Budgets are Tight.”
I found this important message, “Only a handful of schools in the world have an unlimited budget with which to redesign learning space. Educators with small budgets can begin with one corner of a classroom.”
Consider your classroom. Which corner do you want to start with?
Spend some time mentally re-visiting how last year went. Is there an area in your room that felt congested? Or cluttered? A space in which students tended to be off-task or at loose ends? Or perhaps an area that students intentionally sought out for silent work or regrouping that you would like to make more inviting.
Begin with one of these spaces.
Consider adding lamps, plants, a rug, or different seating options. If routines or procedures were an issue, think about what you can design to help make this more structured.
There are infinite ways to make classrooms more inviting, more comfortable, or more functional. Here are a few of my favorites provide by teachers at Gamble Montessori to help you get the creative juices flowing.
(Tremendous thanks to Krista Mertens, Olivia Schafer, Tori Pinciotti, and Beau Wheatley for inviting me into their classrooms at Gamble and allowing me to take photographs of their beautifully designed spaces.)
A place for everything and everything in its place
If clutter or organization is a concern in your classroom, consider purchasing simple containers and labeling them.
Materials to support classroom procedures
If you had procedures, such as tardiness protocols or classroom jobs that didn’t work so well last year, think about materials you could design that would better support and reinforce your expectations.
Morning meeting structures to build community and promote classroom cohesion
If you struggled to develop a positive classroom culture, you may benefit from adding a well-structured daily or weekly meeting to your routines.
Nontraditional student work areas
If you found that students struggled with focus and engagement, consider creating student-friendly work spaces that may look very different from the standard desks and chairs.
There are innumerable ways to design a beautiful and functional prepared space for student learning. However, to do so takes significant time. Ideally, teachers would get paid for this time; the reality is that few of us do.
So, yes, advocate for more paid time to prepare your classroom. Advocate for professional development days to be moved to later in the year to allow for more time for classroom set up in the critical days just before the start of the year. Advocate for getting reimbursed for the materials you have to purchase out of pocket to beautify your space. (That $250 federal income tax credit doesn’t go very far!)
But to leave your classroom unprepared for the arrival of students on that first day is a set up for failure. Students are already worried and anxious about the changes that lie ahead. Quite frankly, so are most teachers. It helps everyone to begin that pivotal day in a space that reflects readiness of the exciting journey that you and your class are about to embark upon together.
Your students are worth it. So are you.
 Lynch, Matthew. “Study Finds That Well-Designed Classrooms Boost Student Success.” The Edvocate. May 10, 2016. Accessed August 02, 2017. http://www.theedadvocate.org/study-finds-that-well-designed-classrooms-boost-student-success/.
An education for a year for sixteen girls in underprivileged countries.
My students made that happen, and they did so much more.
As teachers, we are taught to “begin with the end in mind.” When planning any unit, we are told to start with the intended learning outcomes. Design the assessment first, and then teach students what they need to know.
But sometimes, that’s just not how it goes …
And on this occasion, if I had begun with my anticipated outcome in mind, I would have sold my students’ determination, passion, and creativity far short of what they were ultimately able to envision and achieve.