Gators Give Back: Building Meaningful Community Service

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.

Students sort materials at a local service organization.
Students sort materials at a local service organization.

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.[1]

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[2]. 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.

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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.”

Ugh.

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.

Students work to prepare a celebration and exhibition of the work of local visionaries and voices.
Students work to prepare a celebration and exhibition of the work of local visionaries and voices.

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.

Jack and friends join a student-created march against domestic violence.
Jack and friends join a student-created march against domestic violence.

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?

 

[1] https://www.nationalservice.gov/pdf/07_0506_hbr.pdf

[2] https://www.bls.gov/news.release/volun.nr0.htm

They All Failed The Test. What Do I Do?

Dear Young Teacher,

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.

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What Is Teacher Leadership?

Change is hard. All sorts of change. Not just the pumpkin spice flavored everything showing up in bakeries and coffee shops each fall – though that is also difficult – but change in general.

A new route to school. A child graduated and off to college. A new evaluation system.

All of these changes make life subtly different. However, even when the changes make life incrementally better, the changes themselves can be hard.

Perhaps you have read The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, or The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey, or one of dozens of other recent best-selling books about making significant changes in your life. These books focus on the impressive power of habit to make or break your efforts to excel in what you do. While the power of habit is a sort of current in the ocean of your life, these books insist that you can make changes that seem to force the tide your way.

However, there may still be an undercurrent which is not always flowing in the intended direction.

In the summer of 2015, I had the good fortune to take a class taught by Robert Kegan, co-author of Immunity to Change: How to Overcome it and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization. The premise behind this course and his life-changing book is that people have a natural defense against making changes. It is not just that people do not like or even want to make change, it is that their mind conspires against that change in important ways.

How powerful is this immunity to change? Perhaps as powerful as the body’s own immune system. A survey of heart patients directed to make life-saving changes in their diet and exercise revealed that only one in seven successfully did so.

One in seven. 14%. Life-saving change.

So this year in your classroom likely started off with some big promises for yourself. More timely return of graded work? More comments, fewer final scores? Fewer discipline referrals? A ratio of positive to corrective comments of 4:1?

In Cincinnati Public School we are already headed into our fourth week of instruction as this Labor Day weekend winds down. Now is the time when that habit can either take hold or it can die a neglected, lonely death.

Let’s give it a boost.

Teachers and principals must accept the responsibility for changing themselves, and must be open to that change. After all, your self is the part most directly in your own control. No matter how much one complains, organizations and societies do not simply reform themselves to meet the needs of those who raise concerns.

Everyone exhibits what Robert Kegan and his co-author Lisa Laskow Lahey named an “immunity to change”, where they unconsciously try to preserve the status quo, even if they are outwardly unhappy with it.

Kegan asserts that “[c]ollectivities – work teams, leadership groups, departmental units, whole organizations – also unknowingly protect themselves from making the very changes they most desire.”[1] It is precisely this tendency in groups, and in individuals, that leaders must learn to defend against. If even the most sought-after change a person wants to make, such as losing weight to avoid dying of heart disease, is subject to a fierce defense from internal self-sabotage, then something as superficial as your new grading policy does not stand a chance.

But this is not a hopeless situation.

The most important step here is to make internal adaptations to defeat the immunity. Teachers who wish to change their classroom, their school, or even to affect a specific change in the habits and practices of an individual student, must determine their place in the current set of habits, and make intentional change.

Then we must identify what it is we are doing that stands in the way of the thing we want to do. That is, you must identify your hidden competing commitments.

Perhaps you have made one of the commitments above, but you find yourself taking on several new challenges as the year starts. Suddenly your ability to make comments on every paper the way you planned is encroached upon by the time you are spending on your new projects.

Why do you do this? Why do you take on so many projects? Maybe you want to be seen as helpful, and a leader in the school. This is a noble goal, and a common one.

So, maybe your hidden commitment to be helpful to everyone is now in competition with your commitment to better serve your students’ progress with commentary on their papers.

What can you do about this?

Well, you have already taken a difficult step, you have identified the hidden competing commitment. Now decipher why that commitment is in competition. What are the big assumptions that lie beneath your willingness to overcommit? Perhaps you believe that if you stop being valuable to others, you will lose your role in the school, or lose your peers’ respect? Or perhaps by not getting things done, and telling people no, you will appear to be superficial and worried only about yourself.

Teachers tell their students every day to be ready, willing, and able to change themselves. This act of self-reinvention is scary, and the teacher must be willing to lead and model this change. If you have identified your commitment, what you are doing instead, the hidden competing commitment, and the big assumptions, you have all the information you need to make the significant change.

And now you must enlist those around you to help you make that change. This interdependence is important because in order to make substantive change, we must empower each other to help us get better at what we do. We cannot do it all by ourselves.

Teachers understand the unique needs, challenges, and fears of the profession in a way that no one else can. Who better to offer advice and support to a teacher, than a teacher? Who better to offer correction and redirection? A peer can offer advice without it being evaluative. A peer can offer advice from the perspective of having the same demands on their own time and energy. A trusted peer can listen to fears and flaws without judgement, and help balance the stresses of personal and professional life. There are many formal and informal ways for teachers to step up and provide for each other the leadership that is needed in any situation.

Seek informal mentors

One teacher, wary of placing additional stress on others, and not wanting to be seen as bothersome for asking too many questions, “adopted” a set of informal mentors. If she saw someone who had a strength in organization, she observed them closely, sometimes asking specific questions about their rationale for doing things a certain way, other times merely co-opting a certain structure or behavior that seemed effective.

Another teacher, struggling with the weight of the many roles he had taken on in the school, purposely went to the principal to ask for advice on being organized. This particular tactic, seeking out mentorship from other leaders including administration, can serve multiple purposes. First, it alerts administration to the teacher’s desire for self-improvement. Second, the leader likely has some good advice on managing the tasks and the work, which can be incorporated to lighten the burden. Third, it allows for informal conversations to reveal which work is most valued and to build the relationships that help form any successful community.

 

Intentionally mentor others

Draw one person under your wing by letting them know you are available for questions, asking direct questions about specific aspects of the work, and getting involved in their teaching. Show them around the building. Advocate for them to get preferable lunch times or a more favorable schedule.

Perhaps more importantly, offer to help with a specific task. Are they grading an assignment? Offer to do half. Share a rubric or a procedure for how this work gets handled efficiently in another classroom.

The reality is that mentorship creates teamwork, and teamwork has an indescribably powerful effect on one’s work efficacy and overall feeling of satisfaction. Working with them side by side – to hang curtains, or sort out schoolbooks, or to move a heavy desk when the custodian is difficult to locate – helps make everyone’s load lighter.

 

Join or create a formal mentoring program

One teacher leader strongly advocated to create a mentoring process that would do three things: provide guidance on the basic pieces of working in the building, assist with understanding the processes used for handling a variety of situations, and include a deep sharing of the school culture. 

After weeks of discussing potential approaches to this work and looking for viable models for how to do it, school representatives met with Brian Cundiff, Executive Vice President of Operations at LaRosa’s, a prominent local pizza chain to discuss their “Onboarding” process.

LaRosa’s makes pizza. Gamble Montessori educates children. What could possibly be learned?

As it turns out, quite a lot. LaRosa’s had developed a thoughtful process for ensuring that every employee understood what the company was about. A number of statements stood out during that meeting. Mr. Cundiff emphasized that the employer has a responsibility to grow team members, and you need to train every person in your system in order to ensure maintenance of the culture you are trying to establish. Additionally, the best teachers are your peers. The person taking orders at the table next to you is able to provide support, modeling, and even polite correction in a way that a manager cannot.  Finally, in order to articulate what needs to be communicated about your culture, look back at your vision statement and be a storyteller.

At Gamble, we made sure to include scheduled 1:1 check-ins between the mentor and mentee allow for the pair to problem-solve concerns and for the veteran to provide encouragement and support. Intentionally setting aside time for this work means that a new teacher does not have to feel as if they are imposing when they ask a question that is complicated to answer.  It removes the stigma of being the one who asks too many questions, or the feeling of responsibility for having “wasted” someone else’s time. This is time well spent.

 

Work with your team to create PLCs

At every school, there are additional ways for teachers to take on leadership with or without the support of administration. School teams regularly form professional learning communities, or PLCs, as described over dozens of years by Richard DuFour. The work of this PLC can be called many things, such as a 90 day plan or a turnaround plan, and can be incorporated in personal or professional growth plans, school One Plans, or nationally required improvement plans associated with Title I grants.

Whatever it is called, the true goal of a PLC is to identify a common problem directly related to student learning and solve it as a team. The process to work toward change, and hold one another publicly accountable for it, is exhaustively described in other resources, but it merits a quick summary here.

The team identifies an area related to student learning outcomes where the results are poor, inconsistent with other scores across the building or some larger area, or simply could be better. This could relate to test scores, embodiment of the school’s core values, or visible indicators of academic success such as grades.

Then the team drills down to find the details. What exactly is the measure of these suboptimal results?

Research is the crucial next step. This is where PLCs differ from typical team solutions. Often teams of teachers get together to solve a problem and the depth of their knowledge comes from their own experience. It may sound like, “At my old school we …” This is an attractive song, like sirens on the rocky shores. Do not be lured in.

Past practice does not mean best practice. Even the most veteran teacher finds their knowledge limited by their own narrow scope of professional experience. Seeking outside sources for ideas, including books, scholarly articles in professional publications, and even reading teaching blogs by teachers in the same subject or age band, allows the team to discuss and evaluate a wide array of possible solutions.

Armed with new knowledge, the team reviews possibilities and decides on a way forward. Then they collectively implement it for the indicated period of time. This typically provides for a midyear check-in to evaluate progress, and an end-of-year final review.

If the intervention worked, the team keeps it and adds it to their repertoire. They may even seek to apply this approach to other subjects, classes, or situations if it is readily transferrable.

Or maybe the team does not solve anything. Maybe the data reveals that they did not impact the problem. This is information too. Sometimes the strategy the team believed was most likely to impact the problem has no effect at all. This too is data, and “no effect” is not failure. The only failure is not to try something different in order to impact the outcome.

Teams that use the PLC approach do not solve all of their problems all at once. They do, however, solve their most pressing problem. More importantly, perhaps, they solve the problem together, and build capacity and resources for solving future problems together. This provides a rich and satisfying work experience and improves outcomes.

 

Individual or paired skill building

Another way teachers can gain the competencies they need to feel successful is through individual or paired skill building and self-study. Recently, I saw a presentation by Craig Weber, author of Conversational Capacity: The Secret to Building Successful Teams That Perform When the Pressure is On. I found the presentation eye-opening. Knowing that Krista was intentionally seeking out ways to develop herself professionally, I suggested that we read the book together. We carved out time to read the book, discuss it, and to implement the ideas.

Craig’s premise is that a critical factor for teams is the development of “conversational capacity” – or as he describes it, “the ability to have open, balanced, nondefensive dialogue about tough subjects and in challenging circumstances.”

He describes this as being in the conversational “sweet spot” – that place in a conversation or meeting where candor and curiosity are in balance. But he also cautions that, “[w]hile it’s easy to remain balanced when talking about routine and comfortable issues, when a difficult subject hits the table, our tendency is to move out of the sweet spot toward the extreme ends of the behavioral spectrum. Some people shut down. Others heat up.”[2]

Perhaps your school has seen recent examples of this?

Krista and I worked on these ideas together over the course of the year, applying the ideas to specific situations in our own leadership and in the building and thinking about how to improve our own practices to match the advice in the book. Along the way, we reached out to Craig, the author, and engaged him in our discussion, even providing him some material he said was useful for his follow-up book.

There were mixed results, as happens in the implementation of new practices and the development of new skills. The important part was that they were engaged in a professional practice of intentional improvement.

 

Today, teacher burnout is an existential threat to public schools. In Kansas they are having trouble hiring enough teachers because of the triple-whammy of retirement, working age teachers leaving the profession, and low salaries failing to attract new teachers. It is tempting to think that tucking into a fetal position in your classroom is the answer. Or to believe that what the new teacher down the hall really needs is a good laugh and a distraction from his work so he won’t appear so bothered.

This type of thinking suggests that if you can just spend enough time distracted from your work, then somehow work will be better. That is demonstrably untrue.

What this really does is leave the work undone, to be completed in less time, likely in a rush, and with less attention to quality. This means that lesson plans, feedback on grading, and ultimately student academic growth is set aside in the service of buoying a teacher’s mood.

That is an upside down view of the role of schools.

What really makes people feel better at work is a sense that they are accomplishing the work with a high level of skill, and that they are achieving results. Even if it is very hard work, and time consuming, positive outcomes for students are a powerful mood booster.

The solution to better job satisfaction for all, then, is to take a leadership role in the school and help pick up one of the important pieces of the larger work. Share the load with someone. Work at their side. Gain the capacity to do more, and to do the existing work more effectively.

Become a leader.

 

[1] Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, Immunity to Change: How to Overcome it and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization (Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press, 2009), 87.

[2] Craig Weber, Conversational Capacity: The Secret to Building Successful Teams That Perform When the Pressure Is on (New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2013), 15.

 

Let’s Meet! (Good Books: Meeting Wise)

Let’s meet.

Few sentences carry so much uncertainty in the workplace. There are many unknowns in this invitation. Questions spring to mind. Why? For how long? When? And frequently, there are deep, unasked questions, like Will it be worth my time? Magazines like Forbes and Harvard Business Review frequently feature articles on improving meetings, maximizing meetings, shortening meetings, or avoiding meetings altogether. These topics are nearly guaranteed to drive readers to the site.

Meetings are not all bad, but we all have been in bad meetings. So our experience is tainted, and we are understandably wary. Even folks who understand that a lot can get accomplished at a meeting have to offer incentives and promises to get people to show up at all.

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Summer Homework: The Debate is Over

-by Jack M. Jose

Every spring, conversations erupt in PTO meetings and team conferences about summer homework, and conflict blooms like forsythia bushes. It is a predictable pattern. Overworked parents, stressed students, concerned teachers join educational activists like Alfie Kohn[1] to make a strong and rational case: let children be children, especially in the summer.

The Heart Says …

How true this feels! There is no debate that summer holds a romantic place in the memories of our childhood, spending leisurely days catching crayfish in the creek, playing whiffle ball outside until the streetlights came on, and the evening giving way to long nights spent chasing fireflies. 90 days free from concerns about school, free from responsibilities, unencumbered by deadlines and chores. The description is so fanciful that it seems almost mythical, and our love for our children is so great that we can’t imagine a childhood bereft  of these idyllic landscapes.

Children use summer, and any length of available time, to create and to explore. With vast amounts of time and resources, they can build and learn in new ways. They can explore their bookshelves to find lost treasures of favorite books from the past, or stay up late in the evening building a new model or sorting cards acquired during the day.

The Data Says …

This is a lovely argument. One would surely be evil to suggest tampering with this particular Degas painting of summer! And for some students, perhaps as many as 30% of them residing in the top brackets of socio-economic status (SES) in the US, this might be their reality.

However, when it comes to the skill that is the building block of all learning – reading – summer homework is a necessary way to help our students achieve their greatest potential. It turns out that during that long summer away from the structure and routine of school instruction and work, students lose some of the skills they gained during the year. There is no dispute about summer slide – the fact that summer away from school results in a loss in reading skill, on average a month’s loss. In fact, through the average summer, this can create a “3-month gap in reading scores between middle- and low-income children.”[2] And the gap between low-income and high-income students is even more pronounced. This happens as middle-income children maintain the reading level they had in May, while low-income students slide and high-income students continue to grow.

Worse yet, at the high school level, we are often trying to offset differences and deficits that were years in the making. An oft-cited Johns Hopkins meta study on summer slide reveals that “prior to high school, the achievement gap by family SES traces substantially to unequal learning opportunities in children’s home and community environments,”[3] and shows that this gap can become the equivalent of several years’ gains in reading.

So “summers off” is a plan, but only if we are content to accept that a child’s parent’s income should determine that, at the end of the educational process, some children should be several grade levels ahead of others in reading skill. We believe that a strong education serves to limit our differences, and to provide each graduate with an equal opportunity for success. From there, a person’s effort, grit, and creativity should be the primary determinants of their success. Education, especially public education, should not content itself with perpetuating advantages provided by socio-economic status. Nor should we be in the business of reinforcing disadvantages among these groups.

Putting the Studies in Perspective

We understand that these studies are discussing averages, and trends over time, not describing individual families. The habits in a particular household are not determined by the parent’s income level. A studious low-income parent can help their child resist this trend, while a wealthy parent who provides no summer enrichment for their child can set them up for the type of slide that the studies suggest they will not experience. These are not absolute truths, but rather large-scale trends that we would ignore at our own peril.

The Johns Hopkins study cited earlier suggests that school might well be the answer to address this inequality. “[W]ith learning gains across social lines more nearly equal during the school year, the experience of schooling tends to offset the unequalizing press of children’s out-of-school learning environments.” So socio-economic differences at home can create large gaps in student achievement, and school can offset that gap by improving growth and academic performance for all students.

This position creates challenging conversations, especially in a diverse school like Gamble Montessori. Some of our students, 15% or so, have parents who are college educated professionals. More of our students’ parents are working-class, who despite their hard work and full employment qualify for the free or reduced-price lunch – our best measure of students living at or near the poverty line. Finally, a large percentage of our students live in poverty. Each spring, one or more of our college-educated, active, and involved parents who have time and inclination to join our PTO or Instructional Leadership Team, make the case against summer homework. They make it passionately, in much the same terms as it is made in the opening paragraphs of this essay. It is a compelling argument for a lot of reasons, but mostly because it is likely be true for their child. They are right to make this argument and to raise these important questions, and I welcome their involvement in the discussion.

It was in one of these meetings two years ago where I realized the nature of the argument against summer homework, but I could not find a gentle way to word it. Finally, I decided on asking simply this: “Are we suggesting that we should only give summer homework to the poor kids?” The answer is, of course, no.

So if we know that summer homework helps our poorest readers, and we know that it does no harm to our best readers, except for infringing upon the idyllic summer that we recall, how can we do summer homework well, so it meets the needs of all of our children and families? Here is our best answer.

Doing Summer Homework Right – For Everyone

With the help of the parents, our Instructional Leadership Team set out to right-size summer homework so that it would encourage and foster the growth of skills among all of our students, without eliminating the magic of summer for any of them. In doing so, we set some parameters, asking ourselves, how do we measure the work to determine whether it was just the right amount? The parameters we discuss divide the rest of the conversation below: the amount of time it took to complete, the number of subjects we covered, its value in the class for which it was assigned, whether it was new or review work, and its role in helping a child develop skills that relate to success beyond school such as managing their time and meeting deadlines.

imgresTime

To make the rest of the conversation possible, we had to first set limits on the amount of time a child should have to spend completing homework. More than one conscientious parent had shared with us the story of their child, who struggled with homework in general, spending many summer nights figuratively chained to their kitchen tables, crying at the weight of the work. This was no one’s idea of a summer well spent.

After some debate, we concluded, without basis in any scientific research, that 40 or so hours was right for an entire summer’s worth of school work. With June, July, and about half of August comprising summer, this meant about 50 minutes a day. This seemed a reasonable amount of time over the summer. Not intrusive, just a regular checking in to keep the skills sharp. Once this number was proposed, there was little further official discussion, though away from the table the question is still alive. We generally agreed that this felt right.

Subjects

The summer slide research cited above focuses on reading skills. A RAND corporation study cites the research of Cooper and Nye (1996) that determined “summer learning loss was greater, on average, in math than in reading,” and that this was more consistent across socio-economic lines than was the reading slide. It was reasonable to expect that reading was the skill that students were MOST likely to use in the summer. Therefore, a thoughtful summer homework program would involve all core subjects.

Again, we applied the cap of 40 hours total, which left 10 or 8 hours, depending on the grade of the student and whether foreign language work was included.

Connection to class / function

A common complaint among students, and a very valid one, was that their summer homework assignments languished on the teacher’s desk and had no connection to what they were covering in class. I knew, from discussions with teachers, that this was indeed the case. Papers would sit on their desks, or in briefcases or files, for weeks and weeks, checked in but not graded.

Apparently, both students and teachers saw summer homework as meaningless busywork!

Some teachers were magnifying the impression by not grading and returning the work promptly, other than to indicate whether it was complete. Worse yet, no connections were being made between the work they did over the summer and the work that was to be completed in class the first few weeks. Small wonder that year after year we struggled to get students to complete this work!

So at Gamble we added a stipulation that summer homework had to relate directly to instruction the first two weeks of the school year. This served the purpose of emphasizing its importance, while helping to explain why there was a deadline at all.

New vs Review Content

The term “summer slide” indicates the loss of existing knowledge. If this is what we were attempting to avoid through the administration of summer homework, then we had to assign work that was not new. The first year we reviewed our summer homework through this lens, the work seemed nearly impossible, especially in math. In addition to a short review of the previous year’s skills, much of the work in our existing summer homework covered topics (albeit in introductory form) that our students had not been exposed to in the classroom. Especially in math, this seemed counter-intuitive, and the math teachers at the table immediately agreed to change it. How can we justify grading students for doing quality work on problem types that they have never seen before?

We set the expectation moving forward that work was meant to be a review, and not for new content. Of course, students could read new books, and apply their grade-level reading skills to new texts, but in science and math, summer was not the time to try to add new skills without the aid of a teacher or guide.

Timing / Executive Function

Of course, we found that two types of students completely undermined our plans: the procrastinators, and the planners. One year, my last in the classroom, we handed the summer homework out a week prior to dismissal. One the last day, Lisa approached me, “Here, Mr. Jose.” She handed me a folder, inside were several stapled packets. “What’s this, Lisa?” I asked.

“My summer homework,” she said, matter-of-factly. “Math and science on the left, English and social studies on the right.”

“Umm,” I tried to buy time. “I, uh, don’t really have a place to put this right now, it’s due in, what, August? So,” I handed the folder back. “I’m going to have to ask you to hold on to this.” Lisa was a planner, and she was not about to let the few last days of packing up rooms and free time in some classes go by unused. She had completed her summer homework, she told me, mostly in the classrooms of other teachers, some of whom were showing movies or not providing work at the conclusion of final exams.

Our procrastinators are a different kind of problem. These are the students who plan on having the opportunity in the first weeks of school to complete all of their summer homework. I’ve worked in schools where those students were held in the auditorium or some classroom until they completed the work, or even suspended, not allowed to join their classmates for the opening days of instruction. While this may have provided a strong message that summer homework was required, it really undermined our message that what happens in the classrooms in the opening days is essential to a successful year, and sets those students up for failure. These same procrastinators could rightly argue in some cases, as explained above, that since the work was not graded anyway, they should not rightfully receive a deduction for completing it near the end of the first quarter. (This was part of the reason we instituted the expectation that teachers would utilize the work in a meaningful way in the first weeks of class. In this way, students were rewarded for doing the work, the significance of the class time was upheld, and students’ grades would be appropriately harmed not by an arbitrary grade given by a teacher, but by their own lack of having completed the requisite work.)

These students, both the planners and the procrastinators, lost the primary executive function practice that can be gained from summer homework. Done consistently, these periods of student work can not only erase summer slide, but can reinforce schedule-making and time-management skills among students. This is the hidden goal of summer homework, and the advantage to all students: practicing your ability to manage your time helps promote self-efficacy and leads to greater success far beyond the classroom.

One thing that every student gains from summer homework, if done well, are the skills that collectively are called executive functioning, some of which are: planning and organizing, managing time, strategizing, remembering details, making corrections, and knowing when – and who – to ask for help. The best summer homework structure that I have seen for this is one that we have not implemented at Gamble, but was required of students at Clark Montessori. The work was to be mailed in at certain intervals in the summer. The beauty of their plan was that it helped structure the summer, and developed executive function. It worked to the strengths of the planner, and to eliminate the weaknesses of the procrastinator.

While this obviously served to help the teacher manage the grading load, the effect on the students was even more pronounced. To make this work, students had to plan their summer a little more meticulously, figuring out when and how they were going to complete this work. Instead of cramming it in to one or two weeks just before school started, this plan required students to do the very thing that prevented summer slide: to do their work periodically and summon those same skills repeatedly over time. Students were required to not only complete the homework, but to manage a range of skills that would serve them in many other places in life.

In Conclusion / In Perspective

Summer homework is not a villain, stealing away summer from our children. Nor is it a panacea, for while it does save our students from regression and the achievement gap, it comes at a cost. Done correctly, summer homework is a meaningful review of work that bridges the gap between last year and next, while helping a student develop the management skills needed to not just pass a class, but to structure the more complex projects that lie ahead of them.

In his instructive work The Conditions of Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi points out that periods of intense engagement heighten the sense of value of the time around the event itself. Put another way, moments of structured time in the summer could, in fact, help make the rest of the time seem more precious in context. The flipside of the perfect summer, with the whole time idled away, is the moment of terror the day before school begins again, and the inability to remember what happened as the days melted into a blur of hours lost doing whatever came to mind. The summer best spent is with a mix of structured and unstructured time; time to do the things that need to be done, and time to discover what wants to be done. In fact, the summer well spent might look like a good spring break.

[1] http://www.alfiekohn.org/blogs/summer/

[2] http://www.cslpreads.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/CSLP-Summer-Reading-White-Paper-2015.pdf

[3] http://www.ewa.org/sites/main/files/file-attachments/summer_learning_gap-2.pdf

We’re Writing A Book!!

Hello Angels and Superheroes!

If you are getting this in your email, thank you for being one of our almost 200 subscribers. We are excited to be on this journey with you. Our recent reader survey revealed that many of you not only read the articles regularly, but you also forward and discuss them with friends and co-workers. We are grateful that we are able to create something you find valuable enough to share.

This has been a tremendous experience, and a big challenge. When we embarked on this process, we saw it as a way to aggregate and celebrate the work we have done with our friends and co-workers at Gamble Montessori and in Cincinnati. We also had a bigger, and more secret dream. A dream that is now coming true.

We have signed a contract with the publisher Rowman & Littlefield to write a book with the working title, Angels and Superheroes: Teaching the Whole Child in an Era of Accountability.

A book!

A publisher!

Early artist’s rendering of future book. (Not to scale.)

The process has been fascinating. Encouraged by friends and readers, and our own belief in our student-centered approach to education, we  embarked on this voyage in October of 2014. At a break in a conference where we were presenting, the idea of a book surfaced, as a way to catalogue the important ways that Gamble didn’t seem to be just another school. Then 15 months ago we started the blog. We had a notion that these two works were related, but we initially wrote short blog posts on what we knew and what we believed. Just two professional educators, spitting in the wind. More than 60 posts and nearly 400,000 views later, we are drafting a book.

With advice from a small cadre of wise friends who have published books of their own, we quietly submitted sample chapters and a prospectus to an “A-list” of education publishers who we thought would be receptive to our work, and who we saw as prominent publishers. We were excited to hear positive feedback from Corwin and ASCD, along with a handful of rejection letters. “Thank you for your interest in ____ Publishing.” It was one of these rejection letters, soon after we sent out our prospectuses, that directed us to a company we did not know well, Rowman & Littlefield. We redrafted our work to each set of suggestions from ASCD, Corwin, and Rowman. Ultimately, R&L provided the most enthusiasm and support for our work. The contract landed in our emails on the day we were flying to San Diego to present at the American Montessori Society annual conference. That weekend was a whirlwind of emotions – anxiety about our presentation and the upcoming work, time with prominent Montessori educators – and the excitement of a dream coming true.

With this new work ahead of us, finishing this book by December 2017, we need to make some changes with the blog. To this point we have been writing a new entry each week, averaging almost 2,500 words for each one. Between us, we were writing the equivalent of a chapter a month over a wide range of topics. Now that we are under contract to write actual chapters (to an actual book!), we have revised our publishing schedule. Starting in April, we will begin to alternate new material with pre-published posts. “Classic A&S.” We will curate the older posts, selecting them to appear at an appropriate or significant time for each. We will work in some way to identify to the reader which are pre-published by incorporating a short introduction explaining this.

We are also working to make some other changes to the website to make it easier to search and navigate, and to increase the number of subscribers with some rewards and useful resources, keeping all of our content available to current subscribers.

As we said before, we are excited to be on this journey with you. Many of you are friends, family, and like-family, who have been traveling with us for some time. Your support and encouragement means the world to us. We continue to believe that none of us are angels or superheroes. That, in fact, we are just dedicated people who work hard as a community to find the best way to teach each child who walks through our door. Together we can accomplish a lot. Teachers, parents, students, administrators, entrepreneurs, paraprofessionals – inspiring each other, learning from each other, challenging each other to be the best we can be.

Perhaps, in thinking about it this way, we are ALL angels and superheroes.

Thanks for being on the path with us.

– Jack and Krista

The Militarized Classroom

In early October I received a postcard-sized advertisement in my mail at school. This is common. Each week I receive a dozen or more postcard advertisements, full size color brochures, and even catalogs for anything you can imagine that can be marketed to schools. This one stood out. It was for a whiteboard on wheels, for classrooms.

It was bulletproof.

A bulletproof whiteboard on wheels. For classrooms.

The ad implied that with the right purchase, I could save lives. It implied that one of my responsibilities as a school leader was to prepare for the unthinkable, and that any resource not spent in that endeavor was wasted.

The other advertisements got tossed, unopened, into the recycling bin. This one got propped up against my desk clock. I would look at it and seethe. The rush of adrenaline was palpable each time it caught my eye. It took me weeks before I could figure out why that postcard made me so angry.

It said: you aren’t doing enough.

It said: you aren’t doing enough to protect children.

It said: violence at school is not an aberration. It is something for which you must prepare.

Worse yet, it pointed to misdirected priorities, and an abdication of our primary role as educators. We know that school shootings are most often perpetrated by students who attend the school. The message was that rather than find a way to connect each child to the community, we must instead accept that one or more of them are inevitably going to want to hurt us.

It said: we must plan to protect ourselves from our children.

I know the statistics[1]. How many children are shot in schools each year. How often the principal is among the targeted people. How the number of school shootings has increased in recent years, in coincidental tandem with an increase in gun sales, and in similar tandem with the use of standardized test scores to rate schools.

This postcard said: it is too hard to figure out why it is happening. Just accept it, and make sure you are ready when it happens to you. When it happens to you.

That there can be violence at school is not news to me. I know that there are real threats to our students and schools every day. I know my role, as a school leader, in making sure our students are safe. Most often this means being aware of individual conflicts and working to make sure that they do not boil over into physical conflict. Sometimes it means helping to break up a fight. And I know that sometimes the potential exists for a more dangerous incident.

Several years ago, Cincinnati Public Schools adopted a new protocol to respond to potential shooting incidents.  Called ALiCE, it is a specific set of steps to be taken in case of an event where someone enters the school intent on harming one or more people in the building. It has a reasonable premise that makes it an improvement over the old response model. In the ALiCE response, you can take steps to defend and protect yourself.

ALiCE is, of course, an acronym. It works like this:

A – Alert. When you realize an incident is occurring, you make an announcement to the whole school. You also alert authorities. A sturdy radio box was installed in my main office with a large red button. Pressing that red button quickly handles several tasks: it sets off an alarm in the school that indicates that the building is on lockdown, it immediately connects you, via radio, to emergency dispatch (and, curiously, to every other school that has one of these boxes), it disables the key card readers at the doors and locks the front door, making the building harder to access. It also sends an emergency text to my phone, and I suppose the phones of a CPS security staff. The red button is serious business. I’ve told my office staff they can never press the button without my order, unless I’ve been shot. (More on that later.)

L – Lockdown. Initiated by the red button, or by a PA announcement during drills or non-emergency lockdowns (such as when police notify me they are pursuing an armed suspect in the vicinity of the school), lockdown is a common drill. There is a series of steps that teachers should take in their classroom, mostly to make the room inaccessible and to make it seem empty, and thus not a target.

i – inform. [Note: not a typo. A trademark protection prevents the creators of this system from using all capital letters.] This is where the new system deviates from the old one. The old protocol was that after you were placed on lockdown, you waited under your desk until the voice of an authority figure announced you were safe. Now, with the use of cameras and the PA system, my responsibility is to try and locate the person intending to harm others, and share his location with the whole school. These give important information to teachers, and are also meant to disorient and frustrate the individual attacker.

C – counter. Another innovation in this system is the permission  to “counter” the individual. Instead of sitting passively in a ball under your table, you can act to protect yourself. A disoriented attacker is more likely to fire his gun inaccurately or to move on to an easier target.

E – evacuate. Using the information provided over the PA system, teachers now have the opportunity to decide whether it might be in their best interest to get their class out of the building and away to a safe place – in our case, St. Catherine’s. If they determine that the attacker will not see them, they can exit the building to go to our rally point.

CPS has assured teachers that they can now use their best judgement in an ALiCE event, and will be protected from prosecution if something happens during their evacuation.

This new twist on the protocol prompted an unusual conversation outside of school. Cora is a family friend in the fourth grade at St. Catherine’s, a school on the other side of the park behind our school. At a recent community event, she approached me excitedly. “Mr. Jose, your school is our safe place in case we have to get away from a shooter.”

“Hey, yes, I knew that. Your principal and I agree to that every year. Your school is our safe place.”

She was eager to tell me more, “And, you know what?”

“What?”

“If someone comes in to shoot us, we get to throw things at him!” Her enthusiasm was clear. In a child’s mind, this situation, and the chance at self-defense by throwing a book at an assailant, was a wonderful adventure. These are the sorts of flights of fancy a person’s mind naturally takes in daydreams, or heroic stories they tell themselves and each other while playing. A child tries on certain roles, and then can easily discard them – a police officer, a criminal, the President, a teacher, a superhero. But this self-defense training is an awful intrusion into the world of play for a child. The message that this particular act might not be play one day is damaging. You may have to throw a book to save your life; you might not be safe here; we don’t have bulletproof whiteboards.

This postcard said: it is too hard to figure out why it is happening. Just accept it, and make sure you are ready when it happens to you.

When it happens to you.

When the district adopted this ALiCE protocol as policy, principals were required to attend training to implement it. Designed by our district security and facilities staff, this half-day in a conference room felt a little like officer training. We were given the outlines of ALiCE, with a bevy of statistics. Dozens of students shot and killed in mass victim incidents in Columbine and elsewhere. (This was before Sandy Hook, another school name we should never have heard, but which now haunts our collective consciousness as unspeakable terror.) Individual students shot in dozens more incidents, which gained less publicity, throughout the school year. We learned that time and time again assailants were successful in getting into the school, which is a relatively soft target. We learned terms like “soft target” – which means a building that is not set up to actively defend against unwanted visitors. We called the aggressive student the “perp”, short for “perpetrator.” We learned about “choke points” for student egress, where students can’t all get out quickly and become easier to harm, spots to be avoided during evacuation. We learned that frequently these angry students had easy access to weapons, and they used them to inflict harm on one or more people. We learned that more than half the time, one of the targets was the principal.

I was half joking when I told my staff they could only press the red button if I had been shot. As part of the training, we learned that statistically it is more than just a possibility, in the event of a shooting at my school, that I will be a victim too, along with one or more of my students and staff. Along with the terminology, that night I carried home some of the machismo that was communicated through the training. “It’s okay,” I reassured my wife. “Almost seventy percent of the time when a principal is shot in one of these incidents, he lives.” It took several minutes for her to be able to speak to me, to ask me to vow that I would never joke about that again.

I knew that my actions in the moment could actually save lives, and I took that seriously. This was not news to me. I already believe my actions every day are saving lives, or at least changing them forever.

We were provided a slide show that talked about the history of the ALiCE concept, and the ways that the process might work at any given school. And then we were shown a video.

Slightly grainy black and white, this video was taken from up above the subjects, as if the camera was on the ceiling. Framed on the right side by a shelf of books, it must have been from a library security camera. The movement below a table was confusing at first, then I realized there was a crouching girl in a white sweatshirt, and I knew for sure that I was watching a surveillance video from one of these infamous school shooting incidents. When a male figure entered from the left, I did not need to see anymore. I could not see anymore. I stood, said to no one in particular “I can’t watch this. Get me when it’s over.” Then I walked out of the room.

On my way out, I heard our instructor announce that this was video from Columbine. He named the young man who had just entered the picture, a name too familiar to us now, and I heard the voice of a young woman pleading for her life. Then, thankfully, the door shut behind me, and I sat down on the floor in the hallway, and willed myself not to cry. I was sick to my stomach. Even now, more than three years later, I viscerally experience the intensity of that moment.

I did not need to be convinced of reality. I did not need to be persuaded to do all that I could to protect my students. I did not need to hear the pleas of frightened children, or hear the pop of semi-automatic gunfire in order to take my work seriously. I do not want to become callous to those sounds, or familiar with them. But I still cannot reconcile this strange contrary aspect of my job, the expanded role of protector of my students against immediate threat, and the chief nurturer and educator. Ten minutes later the group took a break and the other principals left the room, subdued.

We know that safety codes and frequent drills work to keep people safe in public buildings. The last death in a public school due to a fire was in the 1950s. Strict building codes have made fires less frequent, and largely eliminated blocked exits and broken signs and signals.  Schools are required to do safety drills continually for a variety of potential threats. Recent changes in the expectations in the state of Ohio have added emergency drills, for the potential of a shooter, to the bevy of fire and tornado drills. In total, we are required to do 14 such safety drills a year – one fire drill each of the 8 months we are in school, one tornado drill each of the three months we are in school during tornado season, and three safety / ALiCE drills.[2]

Teachers take these drills seriously. The questions I am asked come from a desire to understand the policy fully and to implement it effectively. We work to take the drill as a full “dress rehearsal” – if we are to evacuate silently, we do. If we are to crouch or sit, we do, even if just briefly.

I know that these ALiCE drills traumatize my students and my teachers. Several years ago, at a team leader meeting, one teacher was nearly in tears as she sought answers to a question about her windows. To reduce theft, first floor windows were built to only open enough to let air in, but not a person. Likewise, in the event of an emergency, a person could not get out. Her students were going to have questions, and she wanted to get the answers right.

A year earlier, in our old building, an officer knocked loudly on the door of a classroom and identified himself as a school officer. With the teacher’s permission, a student let him in. “Bang!” he yelled. “You are all dead. You can never let anyone in until the all clear has sounded.” Some students laughed. Others jumped and crouched harder in place.

 

Shortly thereafter, when the all-clear had been announced, we called home to have a parent pick up the student who opened the door. She was so distressed that she could not stay in school the rest of the day. Our students understand the nature of violence, and some of them have seen it play out in their lives. Some of them walk home to houses on streets that my teachers suggest are too dangerous to drive down.

This year, Krista related the hard questions her students asked her as they debriefed the drill.

“Why can’t we let someone in?”

The answer? “It might be a hostage situation.”

“What happens if one of us gets shot?”

“I won’t leave you.”

I understand that fires and tornadoes happen. I understand that conflict happens in school.

I can’t understand why shootings occur in school.

Following the devastating shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary school, where 26 students and staff were shot and killed, several parents of the victims created Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing school violence. While they acknowledge that larger solutions need to be taken societally, their approach has been school-based. The emphasis is on providing support for every student, and being aware of the signs of social isolation and aggressive behavior, is the right approach to helping solve the problem. Their awareness video, entitled “Know The Signs”, is a powerful reminder to us to make sure we are vigilant and attentive to the needs of every student. We are inclined, in reviewing the video, to see a perpetrator. But what we see is a child.

Intentionally building community among students, whether in very large high schools or in small elementary schools, is the best way to make sure no student feels so angry and left out that he must make such a dramatic statement.

How do we do that?

  1. Build community into the school. Using specific classes such as advisory, or a team-based approach to schools, allows teachers to intentionally develop a relationship with individual students;
  2. Strengthen access to mental health support. Through hiring counselors and partnerships with mental health agencies students in crisis can be given the individual support they need to get through an individual incident or a long-term mental health concern;
  3. Teach grit, and that it gets better. Let students know that their current personal, academic, and interpersonal concerns are not world-ending. Instead they are temporary, and they have solutions.
  4. Teach empathy. Give everyone the skills and the responsibility to look out for one another. Let them know who to talk to if they are worried about themselves, or if they are worried about someone else.
  5. Offer multiple definitions of “success” in education. Celebrate athletes, artists, academics, and advocacy. This allows for students to be part of the community of the school without having to pursue one or two narrow definitions of what it means to fit in.

In a society where children have nearly unlimited access to every imaginable media, from supportive videos reassuring them that “it gets better,” to destructive videos idolizing and rating school shooters, we cannot put up a barrier to keep problems out. We must instead equip students with the skills and the support to make wise decisions and to look out for one another. The answer is not bulletproof whiteboards. The answer is not ALiCE. These are band-aids as a response to needed heart surgery.

 

 

[1] And here are some of them: https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/promise/pages/17/attachments/original/1445441287/Gun_Facts.pdf?1445441287

[2] https://saferschools.ohio.gov/sites/default/files/HB178-TB15-001%20-%20Flow%20Chart%20-%20final.pdf

Flow: Getting beyond gamification and badges in the classroom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Unfortunately, that is not what has been created.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

And everyone packed up and left.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Dramatic Turn

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Teachers training to lead the JumpStart Theatre program.

In the 2015-16 school year, Gamble Montessori earned a chance to participate in a groundbreaking new theatre program through a competitive application process. The Educational Theatre Association (EdTA), a large national actors’ guild, had initiated a program called JumpStart. Designed to help schools develop drama and theater programs, JumpStart targets schools that have no drama program. They provide training for teachers, access to modified musical scores which are tagged with the label “Jr.” (e.g. Once on This Island, Jr., or Annie, Jr.), and a structure for staging your own middle school musical in the spring.

 In order to be selected for JumpStart, the school must first verify their dedication and determination to establishing an ongoing drama program. This is determined through interviews, where our responses to a series of questions were investigated to make sure we had the resources and initiative to accomplish the work. Once a school was selected – Gamble was one of three in this inaugural round – JumpStart provided support throughout the process.

 Following the successful staging of Once On This Island, Jr. at Gamble Montessori in the spring of 2016, I was asked to speak at a fundraising breakfast to a group of EdTA donors. Other speakers from EdTA spoke about how the program came about, and between each set of speakers a professionally produced video was shown. Each video featured snippets (like this one) from the training or the performances, and interviews with those involved, myself included. Below are my remarks, edited for clarity.

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Watching a video at the breakfast.

Good morning.

You probably know me from having seen me on this wall in that last video.   I’ll be available for autographs afterward.

When they called and asked me, “Would you like to speak to a group of potential donors about …” I said, “Yes.”

I am a huge proponent of the Educational Theatre Association’s JumpStart Program. I asked, “What would you like me to talk about?  Would you like me to talk about my staff and how amazing it was that three teachers, a paraprofessional and a volunteer from the community got together and gave all this time to help these students? And how they split between them a very, very modest stipend?” And they said, “No, no.”

So I’m not here to talk about that.

I said, “You know, I can talk about how the program has grown. How the first year we only had 10 or 11 auditions and this year we had 30; and how the number of parents quadrupled from the first meeting to this year’s meeting and what enthusiasm has been generated in the school.”

They said, “No don’t say anything about that, we will take care of that piece.”

So I scratched that.

And I offered, “You know, I could talk about those moments in the performance where I cried.  One was the moment where the students, a dozen of them, were on the stage. And they did this dance number, and they were all doing their own thing, and it was very clear that they were all hitting their marks and they were looking at each other. You could see this confidence and trust that only comes from working together as a team and a group. Or I could talk about the moment where they said, in a very mature way, about how this female character was ‘healing’ this male character,” (with both hands I did air quotes around the word ‘healing’.) “And how middle school students pulled off a very mature joke and it was funny. And because it was funny in just the right way, I cried.”

And they said, “No, don’t tell that story. We have videos.”

So I’m not here to talk about any of those things.

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Jack speaking at the fundraising breakfast.

I want to talk about the students.

I can just tell you, first of all, I think you already heard evidence of what I am about to tell you in the comments from the speakers before me, and in the video with student interviews that we watched together. Obviously the students were affected by the experience. And these students were a cross section of our school.  At Gamble, about 75% of our students are eligible for free or reduced price lunch.  That means that many of our students live in poverty, essentially.  We provide every student a free breakfast and a free lunch at school every day.  Many of them need that. Many of them don’t.  For a few of our students that’s the only meal that they eat.

That description is not true for all of our students at Gamble Montessori; as a school we have some students who come from traditional two-parent working professional households along with some who have experienced profound poverty.  And students from all of those situations participated in our theatre program, but I want to talk to you about one student. I want to talk to you about Ty’Esha Whitfield. I want to tell her story, but first I’ll let you know that I spoke to her and got her permission to tell this story. And I spoke to her mother and got her mother’s permission to tell this story.  I would never share this kind of privileged information about a student without that level of permission because, well, it’s a powerful story. And it is personal. And it might make some people uncomfortable. I will say that it should make some people uncomfortable.

Ty’Esha at the start of the year was a quiet, heavy set young lady who came to our school and didn’t have a lot of friends. She came from an elementary school where not a lot of her peers came to Gamble.  Gamble Montessori is a magnet school.  We draw students from every neighborhood in the district, so it is possible that a student can arrive here in 7th grade without any of their 6th grade classmates. So no built-in friendships to start the year. And she was having trouble making new friends.

She is a conscientious child.  About the third week of school she was outside and several students were playing on a tree branch and she pulled on it and the tree branch broke. I said to her, “We can’t do anything about this today, but I’m going to bring the tools tomorrow and we’re going to fix this.  We’re going to have to cut the branch because we can’t leave the tree open to disease.” She looked crestfallen.

The next day I went down into the lunchroom looking for her and SHE tapped ME on the shoulder and she said, “Mr. Jose, what do we need to do to fix this tree? I’m ready.”

Ty’Esha is a conscientious young lady.

I didn’t know at the time, in the first weeks of school, that she had started meeting with our school psychologist, Patty Moore.  Her community teachers had referred her because she was having such difficulty making friends with students at Gamble, and she was very socially awkward. She had reported symptoms of depression. Our psychologist learned that one of the things she did to calm herself down was sing to herself a favorite Disney song. Patty was struck by her voice and videotaped it for her and played it back, so Ty’Esha could hear her voice. Patty shared the video, with Ty’Esha’s permission, with her teachers and with me.

She had a beautiful voice.  And we all encouraged her to try out for the musical.  And she got the role of Erzulie, the goddess of love, in our productions of Once On This Island, Jr.  She had a show stopping solo.  She was so proud of herself, and justifiably so.

About this time I talked with the psychologist and, with Ty’Esha’s permission, she shared the information I am about to share with you.

It turned out that during the production, during the practice and rehearsal stage, Ty’Esha and her mother had experienced homelessness in a most profound and deep way.  As soon as they were removed from their home, her mother had tried her sister and all her family members and extended friends.  For 2 nights they had nowhere to stay at all, and they stayed in their own car.

To her great credit, when I shared with Ty’Esha that I knew this, she said to me, in the fast-paced rambling way of someone confessing a long-held secret: “Mr. Jose, don’t worry, it was only 2 nights, and we were okay.  Then we were in a shelter, Mr. Jose, and now it’s better.  We were only there a couple of weeks, and I was okay with the not sleeping so much, I was really worried about my Mom.  But it’s okay now because after we got with our sister for a while, my Mom got a job.  And she’s now renting an apartment just a couple of blocks from school, so I can walk home after I practice for whatever this year’s musical will be.”

How can you do anything but love and care for a student who relates the story of spending two nights in a car, but then expresses concern that her principal would worry about her upon learning this?

Students hit their marks as part of a team.
Students hit their marks as part of a team.

Ty’Esha is the kind of student that a program like this touches and changes. It didn’t just change her individually, like giving her a great experience – which it did – but it literally changed her life.  It changed where her Mom chose to live so she could be part of this program.  It’s helped her stay focused on school while her family got back on their feet.  The impact of this program on our students is an inspiration to me and to the teachers and other volunteers who give so much of their time and energy to the program.

I’m telling you one story, but in reality I’m exposing hidden stories like this everywhere.  And I can tell you that without this program, that it’s possible that Ty’Esha Whitfield would still be in a situation where she was without friends or struggling to make friends. Where she wasn’t confident in school, and she didn’t have a triumph on stage. In fact, this wasn’t just an accomplishment, wasn’t just a great night. It was a triumph for a young lady whose life had not given her much winning at all. It had not given her much hope.

So as you think about those envelopes in front of you today, I want you to think about Ty’Esha and I want you to think about the work that’s happening in each of these schools and come out to the school nearest you, be part of it. Think about how you can give, with not just with your money, but think about how you can give with your time and resources and come out and be with us, and come to our performances. I can tell you other students’ stories, but I promise you that on every stage there are more than one of these stories.

The arts, in addition to being popular among students and families, correlate to positive academic outcomes. For instance, there is a positive correlation between the number of arts classes taken in high school and student SAT scores.[1] We also know that participating in band doubles the chance of performing well in senior level math classes, and that the effect is more pronounced among impoverished students.[2] The JumpStart program itself is working in partnership with Dr. James Catterall of the Centers for Research on Creativity to look at the effect of the program on students’ critical thinking, problem-solving, and other developmental assets. Early research, reported verbally on the morning of the breakfast by Jim Palmerini of EdTA, shows growth in these areas among students who participated in the program compared with a control group at the three involved schools, Gamble, Finneytown, and Holmes.

The JumpStart program expanded this year, to include a total of six schools. These now include Dater High School and Aiken High School, both part of Cincinnati Public Schools. Also in the program are Finneytown Middle School, Felicity-Franklin Middle School, and Holmes Middle School. Starting your own drama program is not an easy process, but EdTA has provided ample support and is looking to continue to expand its program and increase middle school students’ access to drama programs. If you are interested in participating in the program, Ginny Butsch would be glad to hear from you. You can contact her at gbutsch@schooltheatre.org. Or if you would like to support the JumpStart program financially, follow this link to contribute.

Gamble Montessori will be performing Annie Jr. March 17 and 18, 2017.

 

 

[1] Ruppert, Sandra S. “Critical Evidence: How the Arts Benefit Student Achievement.” National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, 2006. Web. 18 Dec. 2016 < http://www.nasaa-arts.org/Publications/critical-evidence.pdf>.

[2] Catterall, James S., Richard Chapleau, and John Iwanaga (2002), “Involvement in the Arts and Human Development: Extending an Analysis of General Associations and Introducing the Special Cases of Intensive Involvement in Music and Theatre Arts.” In R. Deasy (Ed.), Critical Links: Learning in the Arts and Student Achievement and Social Development, Washington, DC: AEP

Make your classroom culturally responsive

It was a cold fall afternoon on the loading dock at Hughes Center High School in Cincinnati.  We stood on a platform of concrete several feet above oil-stained pavement, bracketed by two scraped and dented yellow metal poles. I was a beginning teacher in an urban high school, skinny and white, dressed just a bit more formally than everyone around me to avoid accusations of being a student. I was looking everywhere for someone to mentor me. My current target, we will call her Roberta, was contemplatively smoking a cigarette, her black fingers flicking ash absently toward me, her other hand pinching shut the top of her jacket, which was cinched tightly around her waist. I stood shivering next to her.

We were discussing a text we had read by a black author and with a black protagonist.  More accurately, I was asking questions about aspects of black culture that had arisen, and she was providing monosyllabic answers. I don’t remember the details of my questions. I am sure that they were misdirected, however well-intentioned they may have been. Perhaps they were insulting. I do not remember many of her responses, save one.  The one with which she dismissed me, forever: “You can never understand,” she asserted.  “You will never understand.”

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I was stung. I believed then – as I believe now – in the power of the written word to convey the human experience. That is the magic and the lure of reading and writing.  The Holy Grail I sought in every book I opened was that I would, upon conclusion, be able to honestly say about the author, “I know how she feels.” I was incensed that she believed I was incapable of understanding, or that even well-chosen words were incapable of conveying these truths. I invoked Toni Morrison and Zora Neal Hurston and Alice Walker, and I held them up to Roberta. “Are you really arguing that these authors are incapable of expressing their perspective? These women, among the greatest authors of our time, are unable to explain the black experience?” I argued incredulously. Roberta looked at her watch, dropped her cigarette butt on the dock and ground out its flame with a twist of her foot. A cloud of cigarette smoke and the fleeting wave of her fingers underlined her dismissal as she briskly walked to the door.

I had started my intentional search to learn about others who were different from me years earlier while still in college.  That is where I learned the transformative power of reading and writing. Under the tutelage of John Edgar Tidwell at Miami University, I was exposed to experiences of African American people who intrigued and fascinated me. I saw heroes and saints and villains and sinners. I experienced a range of lyricism and storytelling that matched what I had read from a canon of mostly white authors in the Anglo-Saxon tradition at Ashland High School. Ashland, Ohio is a rural town in north central Ohio, predominantly white, and at the time the largest minority population were a handful of first and second-generation families from India. Almost exclusively, my reading featured white male authors writing in the English language, with an occasional nod to other cultures. (Although it was there that I composed my first stanzas to my first song, an imagined additional two stanzas to Langston Hughes’ poem “Hold Fast to Dreams.”)

Somehow in that limited range, I nonetheless had come to believe in the power of literature to reveal a new world and convey it entirely. At Miami University I awkwardly bumped into the edges of that world, calling home almost breathlessly one morning to tell my mom I had seen seven black students sitting at a table together. I had never seen such a gathering. I believed I was in the heart of diversity. I still clung to my mother’s teachings about race, which was the simple mantra that we are all the same.

I had much to learn.

Some of what I learned over time was that my reading had taught me seemingly nothing. For just as Dylan Thomas’ poem cannot prepare you for the death of a parent, The Color Purple does not prepare you to teach in a predominately African-American school. So I asked questions. I paid attention. I was exceedingly polite. I learned about code-switching and ciphering and I learned to admit my earnest desire to do right by others.

Nearing the end of my college experience, still four years away from being dismissed on the Hughes Center loading dock,  I was assigned to observe a teacher and then do my student teaching at Western Hills High School in Cincinnati.

It was here, at West High, that I had a chance to experience life in a predominantly black school. The things I had read about were all there: the passion for learning, the aching poverty, the respect for educators, the ciphers, the storytellers, the Anansis. A depth, a resonance was added to my reading and, more importantly, to my understanding. But I had so many questions, and much more to learn.

It was also here that I learned about another minority group – white Appalachians. A decade later I would encounter Other People’s Words and The Education of Little Tree , meeting a group of people very conscious of how they were viewed by others, and quick to engage formally educated folks such as myself in conversation so they could “take me down a peg.” I proved adept at beating them to it, by insulting myself while proving my success, and quickly fit in.

The author with some of his students at the Harvest Home parade.
Jack takes a selfie with some of his students at the Harvest Home parade.

Twenty years later I would be a veteran principal at a predominantly black urban Montessori high school just over a mile away from my home. In between I learned that one must read about every issue from multiple perspectives. I read Gandhi and Orwell to learn about Indian culture and to question a Eurocentric view of conquest and authority. I read Philip Roth and Elie Wiesel and learned about a Jewish culture not created by the Holocaust but forever haunted by it. I read the words of Chief Joseph which permanently dispelled any notion I may have held that Native Americans had been somehow less noble or brave than those who drove them from the lands that contained their entire history. Alone, reading is not enough, of course. One must take this information and apply it in interactions with others.

Cincinnati Public Schools house students from countless countries who speak over 60 different languages. In Gamble Montessori alone there are first and second generation Americans from over a dozen different countries on multiple continents.

The opportunities for mistakes are many.

How does one create a classroom and a school community that is racially and culturally responsive where there are so many cultures? How does one find the space and time to teach about all of this? How does any person ever come to understand a culture that is different from their own?

I can start by revealing there are two wrong answers. The first wrong answer is to impose one culture on everyone, using the term ‘melting pot’ to suggest that ultimately all that will separate us is a middle name revealing a secret ancestry. The second, equally misdirected wrong answer, is to try to eliminate any vestige of culture at all. Both are equally impossible, and both rob us of the great gift of experiencing new cultures. My mom was partially right: in some ways we are all very much the same. However, it is our differences as much as our similarities that make us more than merely the object of curiosity, but which extend us to a greater sense of what it means to be human, and to challenge our concept of equality. Culture infuses every action, rule, and conversation in the classroom. Your culture, and your students’ cultures, will seep through no matter what you do. So instead of pretending they don’t exist, they should be learned about and celebrated.

Here are some ways we have found to create a place where students are welcome and appreciated for who they are:

Get to know your students.

  • Go to your students’ sporting events or concerts at school.
  • Personally call to invite their parents to Open House and Student-Led Conference nights (you do student-led conferences, right?)
  • Allow students to choose what they research for assignments.
  • Ask questions about their interests, perhaps using a start-of-the-year survey, and then follow up.
  • Go to other sporting events or religious events where they will be performing or working, or visit them at work.
  • Pay attention to their needs.

Learn about other cultures, individually and as a class.

  • Read books or articles by or about people from other countries and groups, especially those represented in your classroom.
  • Intentionally diversify readings and experiences, perhaps by asking “What cultures and countries are you interested in learning about?”
  • Work cultural and ethnic studies into your thematic lessons.

Standardize and teach the rules of grace and courtesy in your classroom – this softens the edges and creates space for being gentle when we make mistakes

  • Expect polite language for even common interactions.
  • Practice what to do in common classroom situations: someone gets angry and storms out, someone drops something fragile or loud, two students bump into each other, two students disagree on an important issue, a class divides over a thorny topic, etc.
  • Provide a place or a time for students to talk to you individually to address concerns about something that happened.
  • Teach students how to mediate their own differences, and include the practice of stating the other person’s position.

Keep reading books and articles about culturally responsive practices and apply what you learn.

I don’t claim to have gotten it all right. I have certainly made mistakes. I have, unfortunately, said things that were offensive in the moment or in hindsight. When these setbacks happen, the best thing, generally, is to acknowledge them and own them, and offer to try and make it right. Ultimately the best approach is to get to know each person individually, and try to meet them where they are.

Last year, one of our seniors had organized a walk through the neighborhood to raise awareness about abusive relationships. The group of twenty or so walkers who had gathered was comprised almost entirely of African Americans, students, and family members. We were milling around in the lobby, talking to each other as we waited for the signal to begin. I recognized a former student in the group and, as I spoke to him, my stomach growled. I had postponed lunch because I knew my senior had planned a lunch with green beans, mashed potatoes, wings, and my personal favorite: fried chicken.

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I was about to make a big mistake as a white guy standing in a crowd of blacks. I asked my former student, “Tell the truth: you’re here for the fried chicken, aren’t you?”

As if hitting a switch, the group got noticeably quieter. I realized what I had done. I had just blurted out a stereotype of black Americans. I owned it. “Oh my God. That sounded really racist, didn’t it?” As he started to nod, and say, “Yes it really did,” I added, “I just said that because I, myself, am here mostly for the fried chicken, I hear her mom can really cook.”

From behind me a voice said, “She can cook, but it was MY recipe. And you can have two pieces.” There was laughter. A reprieve. Another lesson learned.