“That Thing Where You Tell Us What We’re Good At”

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. that-thing-where-you-tell-us-what-were-good-at-2Narrowing 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 imagefirst 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 imageteachers 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.” [1]

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 imageestablish 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 that-thing-where-you-tell-us-what-were-good-at-1profound 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.

 

[1] Hall, Kevin. Aspire: Discovering Your Purpose through the Power of Words. New York: William Morrow, 2010. Print.

 

The Seven Gateways: How to Teach the Whole Child

-by Krista Taylor

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:

  • Morals
  • 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

  • Health
  • Command of the fundamental processes
  • Worthy home membership
  • Vocation
  • Citizenship
  • Worthy use of leisure
  • Ethical character

In the mid to late 20th century, the “Open Education” movement put forward the need to include the following in classrooms:

  • Creativity
  • Invention
  • Cooperation and democratic participation in the classroom
  • Lifelong learning

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
  • Sound character
  • Good parenting ability
  • Spirituality
  • The pursuit of a job that one loves [1]

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. [2]

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.”[3]

Through her work teaching adolescents, Kessler identified what she coined as image“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 [4]

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.

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The yearning for deep connection

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
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The longing for silence and solitude

 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.
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The search for meaning and purpose

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.
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The hunger for joy and delight

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.
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The creative drive

 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.
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The urge for transcendence

 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.
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The need for initiation

 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.

[1] Noddings, Nel. “What Does It Mean to Educate the Whole Child?” Educational Leadership, vol. 63, no. 1, Sept. 2005, pp. 8–13.

[2] “Federal Policy.” Casel. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Sept. 2016.

[3] 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.

[4] Kessler, Rachael. The Soul of Education: Helping Students Find Connection, Compassion, and Character at School. Alexandria, VA, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2000.

You Never Know Where You Will Find Angels

 – by Krista Taylor

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

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

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

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

Every year we have students who aren’t able to attend our camping trip because of an inability to pay for it. This year, Christ Church Cathedral  provided Gamble with a generous $2,500 grant to help cover the cost of camping for these students. This meant that, for the first time ever, our neediest students would be able to join us. You never know where you’ll find angels.

Ensuring that these students participated in this experience, however, was not a simple process. We first had to set parameters on how the money would be disbursed. It was immediately divided into four amounts of $625 in order to fund students in each of our four middle school communities. But then what? How do we decide who receives it? How much should each family be given? Should behavioral concerns be taken into consideration?

This is a harder conversation than it initially appears. My team sat down together and spent several hours hashing out the details of a plan that felt fair and compassionate. We knew that families should be obligated to contribute some of the money – both to honor their dignity and to ensure their buy-in to our program. We debated the merit of using the funding to support students who were likely to be behaviorally challenging at camp. Did they deserve to go as much as another student who also needed financial support, but was better at following expectations? How much should we give each family? How could we use the money to reach the greatest number of students? Here are the parameters that we ultimately agreed upon.

  • Behavioral issues would not exclude students from receiving funding – in many ways, it is these students for whom the experience is most important.
  • All families would be required to pay a minimum of $20 toward a student’s camp costs
  • We would send out a robocall to all families asking them to contact us if they needed financial assistance
  • We would then contact each of these families individually and begin the conversation by asking how much of the cost they could contribute

It was Jack, our principal, who helped us develop this final piece as a means of determining how much support each family should receive. He advised us to trust our families — to let them know that we were trying to help everyone who needed help, and to trust them to come through with as much of the money as they could. Having these conversations was remarkable. Some families who initially asked for assistance, ultimately were able to come up with the entire amount when we offered them a few days extension for payment. One family who had recently experienced homelessness, divorce, and mental health issues, has two students in our community, and thus, double the cost. They found a way to scrape together half of the money. Other families needed more.

During one of these phone calls, Justin’s mother confided that she didn’t think she was going to be able to make the payment this year. When I asked her how much she thought she could contribute. She quietly said, “Honestly, right now, I don’t have anything.” My heart hurt as I replied, “We’re asking all families to make a minimum contribution of twenty dollars. I paused, desperately seeking words that wouldn’t instill shame. “Can you do that much? If you can, we can cover the rest.” She broke down and tearfully said, “Yes. I think I can find a way to come up with twenty dollars. Thank you. Thank you so much.” “You’re welcome,” I practically whispered. I’m not even sure we actually said good-bye before hanging up. I cannot even imagine the humility that it must take to admit that you have so little that coming up with twenty dollars is a challenge, but I am grateful that she was able to honestly share her reality with me, so that I could help. And I am even more grateful that I had funding with which I could offer the help.

These conversations were uncomfortable and somehow, simultaneously, both uplifting and heart-breaking. We quickly realized that we didn’t have enough funding to cover every student’s need. Beau was casually discussing this challenge with his in-laws, Nancy and Kevin Robie, over dinner one evening. They surprised him by saying, “How much would you need to send them all?”

Honestly, we didn’t know; we hadn’t had financial discussions with all of our families yet. If they each needed the full amount, it would total just over a thousand dollars. When Beau hesitantly shared this information, they miraculously said, “Ok. We can do that.” You never know where you will find angels.

Being able to say yes to every request, and not having to pick and choose between families, was a tremendous gift. Ultimately, it turned out that we only needed an extra $327, and with the support of both the Christ Church Cathedral donation and this private one, twelve students were able to go to camp who wouldn’t have been able to go otherwise. But there were two students who stood out as being the most profoundly impacted.

Unlike Justin, who has an involved parent and has always been able to pay for our field experiences in the past, Micah and Derek have never been able to participate in any of them. Both of these students have uninvolved parents, both clearly come from financially unstable households, both have cognitive disabilities, both exhibit disruptive behavior in the classroom, both struggle with academic content and focus, and both are somewhat ostracized by their peers.

When we considered how to best use our donations, these two students came to mind immediately. However, ensuring their attendance on the trip was no easy task. We sent home our permission form packet with each of them multiple times, and yet the day before the trip, neither of them had their forms turned in. We repeatedly called home trying to get everything in order, but hadn’t been able to reach anyone. Finally, the day before the trip, Micah’s mother came in to sign the paperwork, but she did not turn in the required twenty dollars.

On Tuesday morning, the day of the trip, Micah came into my classroom just before school started – all packed for camp; although with a blanket roll instead of a sleeping bag – and said dispiritedly, “Ms. Taylor, my mom didn’t pay.” I said, “I know, Micah, we have to call her again.” When we called, she told us that she had given the money to Micah, but he had lost it. Perhaps true; perhaps not. We reminded her that she had to pay the $20 in order for him to attend. Finally, less than an hour before we boarded the bus, she came to the school office to pay and noted that she had been at work when we called, and upon overhearing her end of the conversation, one of her customers handed her a ten dollar bill. You never know where you will find angels.

Micah tentatively asked, “So I can go now?” It was such a relief to be able to say, “Yes.”

Derek’s situation was similar. The day before the trip, he had no money and no forms turned in. That evening when we finally reached his mom, she indicated that she had no money to give us, but that we could call his father. We had been teaching Derek for a year, but had no idea that his father was in the picture. When we reached him, he indicated that he’d come to the school and pay the $20 the next morning. In addition, he’d go out that evening and purchase a sleeping bag and flashlight for Derek so that he could come to camp fully equipped. Early the next morning, Derek’s dad was in the office as promised. He paid the $20; the grant provided $119. You never know where you will find angels.

Derek arrived at school with a giant smile. “Ms. Taylor, I get to go! I’m going to camp!”

At camp, we had the opportunity to see these children contribute in a way that they aren’t able to demonstrate in the classroom. imageWhile Derek was canoeing the first day, a canoe flipped over and headed downriver without its boaters, only to wind up lodged in the bank quite a ways downstream. After a teacher spotted it and pulled the group over to try and retrieve it, Derek was the first to volunteer to hike down the bank with a parent chaperone to dump it and bring it back to the group. He did this without complaint and took tremendous pride in his ability to assist the group.

Micah canoed the second day, and we had another swamped canoe. This time it came to rest in a marshy area of the river. When Micah’s boat caught up to it, he immediately jumped out into waist-deep water and started helping to get it flipped over, emptied, and righted. This is no easy task – especially for someone who has never been canoeing before.

Both boys noted that one of their favorite parts of camp was being on cook crew. (Over the course of our four days together, every student participates in cooking a meal for the 55 people at camp.) This is no easy task, and initially I believed that they enjoyimg_1050ed it because it allowed them to contribute to the good of the group. This was certainly part of it. Both boys noted in their journals that they felt good about doing tasks like hauling water from the pump to the campsite, and cooking food such as sausage breakfast sandwiches and vegetable soup.

But it was more than that. At camp, students are not permitted to go anywhere without a buddy; this means that pairings happen frequently and fluently. Both boys struggle with social inclusion at school, but at camp they were overheard gleefully exclaiming, “Why does everybody want to be my buddy? People are all the time asking me if I’ll be their buddy!” Being on cook crew is a group task, and it requires everyone working together, often in pairs or trios. In order to be successful at the task, everyone has to contribute and everyone has to be included. Micah and Derek were wanted and needed by the group, and they felt great about that.

All of this warms my heart. That is not to imply that everything was perfect. It, of course, was not. Derek needed constant prompting to get his packet work completed, and Micah stayed up until 3:30 one night talking in his tent – apparently to himself.img_1064 But at camp, Micah and Derek were also able to shine. Their classmates had the opportunity to see their strengths. Their teachers had the opportunity to see their strengths. But, most importantly, they had the opportunity to see their own strengths. Helpfulness, perseverance, belonging . . . those are beautiful qualities to witness unfolding. You never know where you will find angels.

And yet, this still isn’t the end of my story. On our last day, I had separate, but similar, heart wrenching conversations with each of them. Mid-morning, Derek asked me if we were going to pack lunches again that day. I told him that we were, whereupon he asked me if we had to eat it there, or if he could take it home with him. He was disappointed when I told him that we had to eat at camp.

Later that day when I asked Micah what his favorite thing was about camp, he said, “Canoeing . . . and the food.” I asked him about the homemade vegetable soup that we had prepared the day before. He said he really liked it, and that he had never had vegetable soup before.   Then he said, “Ms. Taylor, are we gonna get to eat dinner here tonight?” When I told him no, he disappointedly said, “Awww, man!”

I smiled and laughed at his response, and then, in the next moment, caught my breath as I understood what he was saying to me. Every other student was over-joyed to get to go home and eat a non-camp meal, but Micah wanted to stay for dinner.  He wanted to have dinner at camp because meals at camp are predictable and nutritionally-balanced, and there is always more than enough.

I wanted to cry.

A few hours later, this feeling was compounded when Derek saw the remaining food that we were packing up to take back to school. He asked, “What are you going to do with that?” We told him that we would send it home with students. He said, “Really? All that bread? Can we take that cheese, too?”

Yes, Derek, you can take the cheese, too.

I already knew that these students had challenging home environments, but I don’t think I really understood what that meant until these experiences at camp. It was suddenly crystal clear that these children simply didn’t have enough to eat at home. They were experiencing food insecurity right before my eyes.

At camp, I had the privilege of being able to provide both Micah and Derek with four days’ worth of the security of regularly-scheduled, healthy meals. This was a benefit of our camping trip that I had never overtly witnessed before. This was the deep learning that was new for me this year, and this learning is equal parts gift and challenge. I know that for four days, these students ate heartily and nutritiously. I now know that this was a unique experience for them. I don’t know how to fix that. I, of course, already knew that poverty is a crisis that impacts many of my students, but never before had I seen or felt it in such a tangible way.

Four days is not enough. I also know that. But it is a beginning, and the provision of food creates a trust that may be more profound than any other. I’m not sure how to continue building on that trust, but I know that we have established a fragile foundation. You never know where you will find angels.

Hate PD? Try Voluntary Piloting.

-by Krista Taylor

Teacher professional development has a reputation for being notoriously poor.

voluntary piloting can't get enough

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.

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To enlarge, click image

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.

voluntary piloting DOI
Left to Right: Innovators, Early Adopters, Early Majority, Late Majority, Laggards

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.

voluntary piloting zpd

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.

voluntary piloting life and death

We’ve all rolled our eyes as yet another flash-in-the-pan initiative is rolled out with great pomp and circumstance.

voluntary piloting flash

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.

voluntary pilot Oprah3

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.

Exeter Math Institute: Math or Social Justice?

-by Krista Taylor

“Verify that P = (1,-1) is the same distance from A = (5,1) as it is from B = (-1,3). Find three more points that are equidistant from A and B.   Can points equidistant from A and B be found in every quadrant?”

I’m sorry, what?

It was the first day of math training, and this was the initial task.   I had signed up for this professional development opportunity because Jack said it would be good, and because I have spent a significant amount of time over the past several years trying to improve my math instruction. Because, you see, I was “bad at math,” and that is not something that I ever want to pass on to my students. As a result, I have worked hard at becoming a better math teacher.

Math has never come as easily to me as other subject areas. In the 7th grade, I was “honors-tracked” in all subjects. I only stayed in honors through the end of the 8th grade, but by then the damage was done because my course of study in math had already been accelerated. I skated through Algebra II in the 9th grade, and very nearly failed Geometry in the 10th. At that point, I stopped taking math altogether. My advisor told me that I shouldn’t even consider taking Chemistry “because of all that math,” so science went as well. While that opened a lot of time in my schedule for terrific courses like Art History, and the History of the Theater, ultimately quitting math early did me no favors.

What irony then that teaching math has been a part of my job description throughout my career.

It wasn’t until I spent three years co-teaching math at Gamble with Katie Doyle that I began to feel a sense of competency. This was reinforced by the occasional proclamations of my own children when, upon returning home from work in the evening, I would hear, “I’m glad you’re finally home; I’ve been waiting for you to help me with my math homework!” Every time, I was tempted to turn around and look for whoever most certainly was coming in the door behind me. “I’m sorry, you’re waiting for who to help you with your math homework?”

Which brings me back to the math training. I want to be a better math teacher. I want teaching math to feel as fluid for me as teaching English does. I want to be certain that I am serving my students in the best way possible. To that end, I know I need to keep working at math. So, I committed to four summer days of math PD.

Which brings us back to, “Verify that P = (1,-1) is the same distance from A = (5,1) as it is from B = (-1,3). Find three more points that are equidistant from A and B.   Can points equidistant from A and B be found in every quadrant?”

I wanted to raise my hand and say, “Excuse me, but you see, I think I’m in the wrong training. I want to get better at teaching math, not doing math!”

I wasn’t nearly that brave, so instead I did this. (Okay, with the group I was working with, and assistance from the teacher, I did this. It’s still pretty cool.)

Exeter math paper

I’ll admit it, as an adult learner, the math was interesting. We were working on problems from the 9th and 10th grade math curriculum at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.

Yes, THE Phillips Exeter Academy. Arguably the most prestigious 9th-12th grade prep school in the country. Tuition for boarding students at Exeter is $47,000 annually; for day students, it is a mere $36,500, and there are rigorous admission criteria. The average class size is twelve; the student-teacher ratio is five to one. THE Phillips Exeter Academy. Full stop.

The Exeter math program is unlike any math instruction I have ever experienced.FullSizeRender (9)

  • There is no textbook, only a binder full of problems.
  • There is no direct instruction.
  • There is no modeling.
  • There are no examples.
  • Nearly every problem is a multi-step, word problem.

 

The structure of the class is such that when students enter the classroom, they immediately begin putting answers on the board from the homework the night before. Then the group discusses each problem, assessing accuracy, determining alternate methods, revising the work, questioning the results. The teacher’s role is to provide a few prompts and probing questions to deepen the understanding of the group, and to correct inaccuracies. Once all of the problems have been explored, new homework is assigned to be analyzed the next day in class. That’s it. That’s the entirety of the instructional process each day.

But, at the end of Day 1, I found myself feeling aggravated. I wanted to get better at teaching math to MY students. My 7th and 8th grade students at Gamble Montessori High School in the Cincinnati Public School System. How in the world was spending 8 hours a day for 4 days completing Exeter math problems going to help me to do that?!

Exeter students are not my students.

Exeter students pay tens of thousands of dollars in tuition each year. Seventy percent of my students are eligible for the Federal Free Lunch Program. Exeter students must demonstrate academic excellence in order to be admitted to the program. Thirty percent of my students are identified as having a disability; many more struggle with significant skill gaps. Exeter students either live at school full-time or remain on campus until 8:00pm each evening. My students go home at the end of a 7-hour school day, and some of them experience significant stress in those home environments. Exeter students are instructed in class sizes of 12. My students are in classes with 25-35 of their peers.

Exeter students are not my students.

The second afternoon, during a break, I had a casual off-hand conversation with Sami Atif, one of our instructors who is a math teacher at Exeter. We were discussing the make-up of the student body at Exeter.

He said, “It’s a cultural thing.”

Taken aback, I defensively asked, “What do you mean, exactly?”

His response surprised me. “It’s about culture.  These kids are empowered.  They don’t hesitate to question a teacher or a problem.  I don’t think I ever questioned a teacher when I was growing up.  I wouldn’t have dared.  These kids don’t have that issue.  It’s about power.  They believe they have the right to question and to speak up.”

The conversation lagged, the break ended, and we went on with class. But his words hung with me. I revisited them on the drive home, and at some point before I went to bed that evening, it hit me like a kick in the gut.

“These kids are empowered.  They don’t hesitate to question a teacher or a problem . . . It’s about power.  They believe they have the right to question and to speak up.”

I want that! That empowerment? That questioning? I want that for my students. I don’t care how I get them there. If this math strategy is what will give them that, then I want that for them, and I will do whatever it takes to get it for them.

Days three and four of the training were different for me. I was all in. Not just for me, for my students, too.   It helped, of course, that I was witnessing my own math development in action. I was thrilled on Wednesday evening to discover that not only was I able to approach nearly every problem assigned for homework, I was able to get to an answer that I was near certain was correct.

Here is an example: “Let A = (-2,4) and B = (7,6). Find the point P on the line y=2 that makes the total distance AQ+BQ as small as possible.”

IMG_0448 (1)

That was the change in me after three days of practice.

And I started to observe the instructors. This was far more than a curriculum; it was a methodology. The first thing I realized was that they never (never!) provided or confirmed an answer. This prompted more than one person to question whether the instructors actually even knew the correct answers! Instead they met questions with questions and provided guidance in the form of suggestions or references back to previously constructed knowledge.

By this point, I was writing down everything they said because I know from past experience that when looking to make a shift in practice, sometimes you have to “fake it ‘til you make it.” I was seeking a script, so I allowed the instructors to unknowingly provide it for me themselves. Here are some of their prompts:

“It looks like maybe you were thinking . . . “

“Are there any other ways to get there?”

“That’s a step I want to process more.”

“That’s really interesting.”

“Are there any other ways to look at this?”

“Are you convinced that you’ve found the correct answers?”

This strategy is known as “Harkness teaching” as it was first conceived of by Edward Harkness, an oil magnate who gave a significant donation to Exeter Academy for implementation of a teaching style that he described thusly:

“What I have in mind is a classroom where students could sit around a table with a teacher who would talk with them and instruct them by a sort of tutorial or conference method, where each student would feel encouraged to speak up. This would be a real revolution in methods.”

Oh, yes, Mr. Harkness, I, too, see your vision as revolutionary.

And yet I remain haunted by the question of “how.” How can I possibly implement this in my classroom – keeping in mind that many of my 7th and 8th grade students arrive with math skills that are expected from a 4th or 5th grader. What can I do to help them to reach this level of math confidence and comprehension?

What I didn’t realize initially was that this work had already been begun by Savannah Rabal, a junior high math teacher at our sister school, Clark Montessori. Savannah was out of town for the first two days of the training, but when she arrived on the third day, I began picking her brain for how she had done it. Her wise words, “Trust the Process,” provided me with hope in my ability to implement something similar in my own classroom.

Here are some of the expectations that she and her class developed for working with this type of instruction.

Exeter Savannah

So perhaps it is possible to do something like this after all – to provide my students with the opportunity to work collaboratively with their peers solving high-level math problems through exploration, discussion, discovery, and critical thinking. I do not know yet exactly what implementation of this methodology will look like in my classroom, but here are my thoughts so far:

  • Begin with just 1 day a week
  • Provide direct instruction in expectations for the process; allow for student input and suggestions as we identify strategies for working together
  • Establish small groups that would work together consistently
    • Groupings could be heterogeneous, allowing stronger students to support those who are struggling
    • Groupings could be homogenous with differentiated questions, allowing strong students to work together toward acceleration, while struggling learners would be obligated to take risks and make attempts to approach the task without the support of their typically-relied upon peers.
    • Groupings could be a flexible combination of both homogenous and heterogenous groupings, allowing for the benefits of both options
  • Develop scaffolded supports to support student exploration and learning
    • Teacher prompts
    • Written structures such as guiding prompts and organizational supports
    • Pre-select appropriately leveled questions or design our own
  • Begin the process by working the problems together in class rather than expecting students to tackle them independently as homework in the initial roll-out phase

I’ll be honest. I am nervous as all get-out to even attempt beginning this process. There seems to be so many hurdles in the way. The challenges my students face with math content is just the beginning.

How on earth will I get my colleagues on board? They will not have the benefit of a four-day experiential training to elicit their buy-in; they will only have me (and Rosalyn and Erin, who also attended the workshop) waxing prophetic and showing them the materials that at first glance seem utterly ridiculous.

Even if I only implement this approach one day a week, it will throw us further off the curriculum content pacing that the district expects. How can I demonstrate that this is beneficial enough to make it allowable?

What will the parents think? Savannah already had this experience when a parent contacted her saying, “So, I hear you don’t teach math anymore.” Many parents are already wary of Common Core math, and already feel beyond their ability to assist with junior high-level math. What will they think when we throw this at them?

And what will happen when it doesn’t go as I have planned? In fact, the only thing I am certain of is that it won’t go exactly as I have planned. What then?   Will I have the courage to stick with it? Will my students? Will my fellow teachers? Will my administrators?

It helped to discover this excerpt by Elisabeth Ramsey in the Exeter “Introductory Math Guide – Written For Students By Students.” It feels a bit as if she was writing directly to me regarding my apprehension about implementation, “I learned one of the more important lessons about math at Exeter; it doesn’t matter if you are right or wrong. Your classmates will be supportive of you, and tolerant of your questions. Chances are, if you had trouble with a problem, someone else in the class did too. Another thing to keep in mind is that the teacher expects nothing more than that you try to do a problem to the best of your ability. If you explain a problem that turns out to be incorrect, the teacher will not judge you harshly. They understand that no one is always correct, and they will not be angry or upset with you.”

And I continue to hear Savannah’s words echoing in my head, “Trust the Process.”

And Sami’s comment, after I acknowledged him for the powerful impact his words had on me, “Yeah, this is social justice work.”

So, remembering the feeling of: “I want that! That empowerment? That questioning? I want that for my students. I don’t care how I get them there. If this math strategy is what will give them that, then I want that for them, and I will do whatever it takes to get it for them,” I am ready to take the plunge. I’ll let you know how it goes.