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.

jstbfast
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

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

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.

What are your core values? (You have them, right?)

community

This summer, Scott Pardi, a teacher at Gamble Montessori high school, where I am the principal, called me.

“Jack, can I rewrite Gamble’s core values?”

Scott was part-way through his Montessori certification classes. I understood immediately. He was taking Structure and Organization, and was working on specific artifacts to help manage daily issues in his classroom. His was not an existential question, a core values question per se. I knew what he meant. He was fine with our values: Community, Hard Work, Learning, Peace, Respect.  They are posted throughout our school, on the letterhead and elsewhere. In the classroom, each word has a description created to help students understand the core value. These are legacy descriptions, handed down from our school’s first set of teachers, created on our school’s first ever retreat.

The descriptions are generally fine, with one really awkward exception. In this paragraph, the school is symbolically a hand, and every part contributes to the work. The unfortunate phrasing is “each joint supplies …” I can quote the rest but it is immaterial. You see the problem, right? Especially in a room full of adolescents, in an era of debate over the legalization of marijuana. “Each joint supplies …” could send a student off on an awkward and unproductive tangent. Yes, he could change the descriptions!

Upon telling him that, I also quickly drew a red line, to give him the guidance he sought and to make clear where experience and research told me we could not go: the five values must stay the same. He could rewrite the awkward descriptions. It was important that the values remain constant and consistent across the school. This is explained later in this article. However, the descriptions could – and should – be the subject of continual revision and conversation.

Even better than the core values you have? The ones you use. Those are the perfect core values.

He had started the work already, anticipating my answer, and started to read one of the proposed descriptions to me. He paused self-consciously in the middle and said he needed to wordsmith it, starting to apologize. I stopped him mid-apology. I reassured him that the most important thing was that he was grappling with the meaning of the core values for him, and for implementation in his classroom. He was internalizing them and making them his own. It was impossible to ask more from him in that moment.

Many schools and other organizations have core values. Some call them beliefs. Some embed them in a vision or mission statement and some, like us, separate the three: mission, vision, core values. Gamble Montessori’s values, Community*, Hard Work, Learning, Peace, Respect, were “borrowed” from Clark Montessori, our older sister school, as we attempted to model our program on their success. In Cincinnati Public Schools we have occasionally been encouraged to develop a core set of values, often as part of the Positive Behavior Interventions work that we cycle through regularly. Down the street, our closest high school neighbor, Dater High School, asserts, “At Dater High School we …. Work Hard, Love to Learn, Never Quit, Care, Prepare for the Future.” Pleasant Ridge Montessori, another of the public Montessori elementary schools in Cincinnati, proudly proclaims “PRM ROCKS”, which seems to suggest 5 core values. However, their core values are Respect, Ownership, Kindness, Safety. (Yes, they are aware that this is really “ROKS”!)

These examples point to the obvious truth about core values: the most important thing is to have them. There are no wrong core values, except for the ones you don’t have.

Hard Work

That said, there are a few rules you must follow if you wish to develop core values for your school or organization. The process can be flexible but must meet these three criteria.

  1. Create your core values cooperatively. Deciding what you are about as a group requires a group effort. Mottos, visions, and core values passed down from on high, or from years and years earlier, carry less weight than a shared vision developed together. This does not mean that legacy values and mottos are useless. However, if you are starting from zero, the process of discussing, defining, and articulating your values as an organization increases buy-in and ownership.
  2. Select a manageable number of core values. The examples I include in this article all consist of four or five core values. If you go fewer than that, you run the risk of missing large swaths of behaviors that occur in your school on a given day. If you go much beyond five or six, you dilute your message and they become meaningless or overlapping. This does not mean overlap is necessarily the enemy. Too many “core” values is a problem.
  3. State them positively. This rule is true about all sets of rules, including core values and mission and vision statements. Give people something to live in to, something to become. Many teachers create sets of rules for their classes that define what you can’t do: “Don’t leave your seat without permission,” “don’t interrupt others,” or “don’t talk without raising your hand” are some examples. Stating the expectations positively sends a message of opportunity rather than the message of limitation set by these negative examples. The Dater High School example above is an exemplar of positively stated core values, for instance “Work Hard” provides a clear directive to a person.

The purpose of core values is to instill in the group a common sense of purpose and meaning. Earlier I used the phrase “drew a red line” to describe my reaction to a change in the core values in Scott’s classroom, while allowing him to change the descriptions. This is because as a school, we are invested in setting clear boundaries for our adolescents. These boundaries and expectations, when repeatedly reinforced over time and throughout our spaces, become instinctive and ingrained in us.  This is not because our core values are infallible. In reality, the absolute best core values are the ones you have. Whatever they are.

Even better than the core values you have? The ones you use. Those are the perfect core values.

How does one “use” core values? Below is a starter list of ways to saturate your school with your core values, to reinforce and teach them multiple ways.

Post them in the classroom

Placing attractive and legible versions of the core values in a prominent place in the classroom helps provide a framework for the expectations in your classroom. This is strengthened if the values are posted throughout the school, and as they are utilized in the additional steps below.

Learning

Use them in your classroom and building rules

Relating each of your classroom and building rules to the core values, perhaps using each value as a “header” with specific rules beneath it, you move toward several important goals. First, you justify each procedure or rule as belonging to a larger structure of rules, giving each a raison d’être. Second, it helps students categorize each expectation, which in turn aids their memory and makes it more likely that the rules will be remembered and followed.

Place them throughout the staff manual and the student handbook

Core values can help serve as an organizational structure for your handbooks. Much like with the classroom rules, using them as an organizer helps justify rules and expectations. Placing them here also ensures that they will be seen at least once a year as you review the expectations with you staff and they, in turn, review the expectations with their students.

Peace

Include them in student reflection forms [LINK]

At Gamble, we use reflection on misbehavior as a way to reteach appropriate behavior and help a student understand why they misbehaved. Asking a student to relive an experience later and find different solutions helps provide them with resources and “experiences” to make better decisions in the future. The Gamble reflection form requires the student to identify one or more values that were violated that prompted the need for a reflection. Redirecting students to the core values not only serves as a reminder of the rules, but it also helps them understand that the rules serve a purpose other than providing an annoying roadblock to doing whatever one pleases. Instead, behavior is understood to need to match these easily remembered values. A student in a future new situation is likely to remember one of the core values and apply it to improve their behavior. This is a much better strategy for teaching behavior than trying to imagine the countless permutations of behaviors throughout the school and to teach each individual scenario.

In student commitment forms [LINK]

Many schools ask students and parents to make a series of commitments as they enter the school or progress through to new teams. This is certain to include following the rules and not committing certain infractions. It may also address doing work of a certain quality and exhibiting exemplary behavior. Using the core values in this document, especially in combination with the other places above, helps send a unified message to students.

respect

Use them on your school letterhead and other public sites

Part of your saturation process means using the core values in correspondence other than just with teachers and students. message you send outside the school is important too. Showing partners and parents and others that you have a thorough commitment to your values sends a message that a school has thought about what it expects from students. In Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, one of the habits is “beginning with the end in mind.”  Espousing these views of the values we hope for a graduate to possess is powerful. Placing them on public documents is an attractive trait to parents who might have to wade through a wide range of school choices, or might be seeking reassurance that their only choice is a good one. Seeing that your school seeks to instill important values in your child builds confidence and trust.

You and your school have accepted the mission to educate a child beyond mere standardized tests and common standards. Adopting and using core values as a guide and structure for the teaching of behaviors and habits helps create a shorthand for achieving your loftiest goals. The work is not simple, for sure, but it is made simpler by providing an agreed-upon framework of common core values.

Scott envisioned an important 6th core value for his classroom.
Scott envisioned an important 6th core value for his classroom.

Something was in the air this summer. Soon after talking with Scott Pardi about his edits to our core values descriptive paragraphs, Josh Vogt, a veteran teacher at Gamble, brought them up too. Josh is in the important role of Montessori Coordinator. He expressed frustration that our core values are the same as our sister school – we had not written them ourselves. He had written some new possible values down on a sheet of paper, but he wasn’t quite happy with them. Our conversation ranged over a couple of days until a summer meeting where he appeared to have reached an important breakthrough.

“I’ve got them,” he announced, with seriousness.

“Them?”

“Yes, the new core values.” He held up a list of hand-written words and phrases on a lined sheet of paper. It was long. “I just need you to approve them.” He gestured as if handing the paper to me to sign, offering me his pen. There were a couple of columns of values, one of which carried over to the back.

“Long list.” I observed.

“One hundred and six.”

“One hundred and six?”

“Or thereabouts,” he conceded. “Some of them feel a bit redundant. Might be about 100 though.”

“Sounds like you’ve covered everything.”

“I believe I have,” he nodded modestly. “It’s all in there. Honesty, Trustworthiness, Caring for others. Bravery.” He pointed at the list as he said each one. “All the important ones.”

He was right, and it underscored an important point for me. The best core values are the ones you have, and even better are the ones you use. Almost everything he had written down could plausibly be a core value at a reputable school. But the list was so long! I suggested, “I think we might need to simplify a bit.”

“Simplify?” he asked.

“Yes, this seems a bit excessive. You know, in an age of electronics.”

“Oh? … Hmm. I see what you’re saying.” He took the list back. When I saw him later that afternoon I had almost forgotten our conversation.

“I’ve got it.” He pronounced.

“What?”

“The solution to our core values. I have them. Final version”

“Already?” I was surprised. “Final version?” I was remembering the long list and imagining how he could have winnowed it down to five or six.

“Yes.” He paused dramatically. “Emoji’s.”

“Emoji’s?”

“Yes, and we will only need five: smiley face, frog, 100%, American flag, honey pot.”

“The kids will understand it?” I asked.

He nodded reassuringly, “Oh yeah.”

“But will we?”

“We can learn.”

 

What are your school’s core values? We would love it if you could include them in the comments below.

Josh's mostly tongue-in-cheek core values suggestion

* Here and throughout the article I capitalize core values. The English teacher in me cringes. However, I think it is important to note that core values are proper nouns because they play a powerful role in a school, and therefore merit this capitalization.

Teaching Morality: The Kohlberg Chart

-by Jack M. Jose

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I knew the lesson wasn’t my most riveting work. In fact, I cannot remember what I was teaching that day. But, however dry the material, I was still shocked when a student suddenly got up from her chair by the door and quickly walked out of the classroom.

“Did she just …?” I asked, gesturing toward the door. A couple of students nodded affirmatively. “Do you suppose she knows that I saw her?” I joked. This elicited a little laughter, and I took a deep breath before I attempted to resume the lesson. On the surface I remained calm, but underneath I was experiencing a fierce internal battle. I still had a full class, so I had to keep teaching, but a student had just walked out of class. Out of MY CLASS! I wanted to find her and bring her to justice! No, I NEEDED to bring her to justice!

Barely a minute after I had resumed teaching, she walked past my door, from left to right. That was bold! In between points of my lesson I quickly, and very publicly, wrote out a Saturday School form, with her name in all capital letters, with sharp angles visibly demonstrating the peaks of my frustration and valleys of my despair. I had barely gathered myself before she walked past again in the other direction! I was going to lose my cool! To be so blatant. To essentially DARE me to catch her! I got to a natural stopping point in the lesson, with students working quietly at their desks, and stormed toward the hall, just as she re-entered. Through clenched teeth I asked, “Where were you? You think you can just walk out?”

The next couple of sentences are lost to history, but I am afraid that I may have already gotten to the point of threatening specific consequences when she interrupted me. “Mr. Jose. That teacher from down the hall, the really heavy English teacher?” (I knew which denotation of ‘really heavy’ she was using – she didn’t mean ‘prompting deep thoughts’ – but I could address her poor manners later.) “She was walking past when she spilled her coffee, and then dropped a pile of papers. I had to help her.”

But I had her cornered. I could see through her little story. “Then why did you go past my door two times?” I held up a pair of fingers to reinforce the multiplicity of her offense. Then, in two syllables: “tuh-wice?”

“Mr. Jose,” she sighed. Frankly, a bit patronizingly. “Okay, I broke a rule.”

Now she was starting to see it my way!

I waited for her admission of wrongdoing. “I went into the boys rooms to get some paper towels to help her clean it up. It’s just … it’s just so much closer than the girls room. There wasn’t time.”

Well … now everything changed. I was in a bit of a quandary. Here was a student who had indeed broken a rule. But who had acted in accordance with perhaps the highest impulses given to us – she had broken a rule to help another person. And a teacher at that – she’d broken a rule to help one of my brethren! I looked down at the puny and ill-intentioned form in my hand, thought hard about the waste of a triplicate form, and ripped it in half.

“And why didn’t you say something as you left?”

“You were in the middle of a sentence, I didn’t want to interrupt.”

It was years later that I encountered Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of moral development. Kohlberg worked from Jean Piaget’s framework suggesting that a child develops cognitively in a predictable pattern. Piaget demonstrated that a child moved from a concrete operational stage to a formal operational stage. In this last stage, a person can understand abstract concepts such as morality and virtue.

Piaget's Stages of Cognitive Development
Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development

Kohlberg researched how morality progressed in individuals, and found that there was a similar, predictable progression. Kohlberg described the stages as demonstrated in the chart below, along a continuum. These are most simply described by the primary motivation that prompts the individual to act.

Kohlberg's Chart of Moral Development could be displayed in your classroom.
Kohlberg’s Chart of Moral Development could be displayed in your classroom.

The first two levels, which together he called “pre-conventional” to suggest they happen before adolescence, were acting to avoid a consequence, and acting to get a fair deal for yourself.  In the “conventional” stages, a person would be seen to act to gain someone’s approval or to act in strict accordance with societal (or classroom) rules. Finally, in the “post-conventional” stages, one might act out of respect for moral rules or to act from an internalized code of what is right or wrong.

One implication of these stages is to suggest that a person might be guided by the conventional goal of pleasing others, and in doing so might break a moral law, blind as he is to the other motives of his behavior. Calling these “stages” suggests that they happen in a particular order over time, with a person eventually arriving at the highest level. However, it is not simply a function of age. A child can’t necessarily move up the ladder simply with the passage of time.

Unfortunately.

Instead, we are called to guide and push each other through these stages of development. At school, we have a particular responsibility to assist students to progress toward the highest level.

Stop asking someone to “do me a favor and …” as a way of asking them to follow a rule.

We know our goal. In our society, where we value justice, truth, and independence, we want every person to be guided by post-conventional motives. A society full of people who do the right thing because of an internal belief in doing what is right is an unimaginable utopia.

So how do we push students up the ladder from one step to the next?

At Gamble, we have decided on several intentional actions to foster a sense of commitment to the higher motives:

Move past Level 1, Stages 1+2:

  • Stop providing punishments or threats of punishments to address every undesirable behavior. It is easy to reach for the Saturday School slip for every transgression. However, this does not promote a sense of the action’s impact on others, nor does it provide replacement behaviors.
  • Start using a wide range of responses to misbehavior, allowing for a written or verbal explanation of every misbehavior. Perspective matters, and it is important to take the child’s perspective into consideration. Then make sure that every incident results in re-teaching the desired behavior.
  • Start teaching the desired behavior in common situations: how lines form, how to react when someone drops something in the hallway, when you think someone is mad at you, when you disagree with a teacher’s decision, etc.
  • Stop using external rewards. No more stickers for homework completion. Hopefully you will never hear a staff member at Gamble bargaining with a student to get good grades for pizza, or to behave for lunch on Tuesday, or to come in from outside in return for a treat. It is relatively simple to end this practice in your own classroom. These reinforce the lowest levels of moral development. Just stop. [A note: in certain situations, a defined contract with clearly stated rewards and consequences, over a clearly-defined period of time, might be necessary to help a student form a framework for improved classroom behavior.]
  • Start emphasizing that doing the work, or having excellent attendance, is its own reward. The community is better because they are there, and we are thankful for their presence. Their hard work and contribution is important to the group.

Very publicly, wrote out a Saturday School form, with her name in all capital letters, with sharp angles visibly demonstrating the peaks of my frustration and valleys of my despair.

Move past Level 2, Stages 3+4,

  • Stop comparing one student’s behavior or grades to another student’s. This sort of norm referencing of behavior can serve to mask the true benefits of good behavior: when we all agree to a certain code of behavior, predictable good things happen. When we all agree not to litter, our grounds stay clean, for instance.
  • Stop saying someone is “good” or “bad.” Even when the person is not present. These terms are nebulous at best, and damaging at worst. This language suggests that whatever needs the student was trying to meet are not as important as the rule or norm they broke. In schools we have students who come from every imaginable set of home expectations. Labeling someone “bad” based on observed loud behavior in the hall is a tragic and damaging over-reach.
  • Start providing reinforcement for positive behavior, and correction of misbehavior, by pointing out the social benefits of the desirable behavior. Instead of saying, “You guys are being good,” say, “When you walk through the halls this quietly, the students who are working in other classrooms can keep concentrating.” At Gamble we use a technique called “Describe, Label, Praise” where, instead of saying “great job” we practice describing what was observed, give it a title, and then praise it. For instance, “I saw you stop and help someone pick up their papers in the hall, that is very considerate. I sure like going to a school with helpful student like you.”
  • Stop asking someone to “do me a favor and …” as a way of asking them to follow a rule. While this may be effective in the short term, ultimately we want students deciding to do what is right whether or not we are present to be pleased or displeased (or favored) by their actions.

Move into Level 3, Stages 5+6:

  • Start asking questions about moral issues and the value of individual rights and freedoms. Discuss important documents in history: Hammurabi’s Laws, the Constitution, various religious texts including passages from the Bible, the Quran, the Sutras, and the Talmud. Allow exploration of why societies developed these types of rules for themselves. Want to know more about how to do this? Read about how to do Socratic Seminar.
  • Start utilizing apologies and restitution as ways to address misbehavior. Though these are consequences of a sort, they are intended to prick the conscience and provide the opportunity to reflect and grow. Think of conscience as a muscle. To exercise it, though, the teacher must help create a situation in which they truly understand where and why they were wrong, and issue a sincere apology.
  • Stop allowing questionable behavior to go unchecked and unquestioned. Ask a child who threatens or jokes about immoral behavior to explain the comment, and reflect on who might be affected if they were to act on that thought.
  • Start being willing to rip up the Saturday School form when a student explains a legitimate reason for leaving your class in the middle of a lesson.

The process of moving students up through these stages is not in the Common Core, nor in the expectations of future employees. It is definitely not on the AIR or ACT tests, nor the State Report Card. However, there is no argument that these are the most important lessons we can impart to our students. Spending time in class engaged in these questions does not take away instructional time. Ultimately it is an investment in the moral growth of students. This is an investment that you will realize pays great dividends over and over again.

I want to work in a school, and live in a world, where students feel empowered to step out of class to help someone without repercussions. Where those in authority can determine the right time to act, and where they have the right and the opportunity to take no action at all – to rip up the Saturday School slip.

What do you do in your classroom to encourage kindness, cooperation, and moral choices?

Good Books: The Talent Code

-by Jack M. Jose

Usain Bolt ignited: "People say I am a legend, but I am not. Not until I have defended my Olympic title. Then I will be a legend. That is what I have decided."
Usain Bolt ignited: “People say I am a legend, but I am not. Not until I have defended my Olympic title. Then I will be a legend. That is what I have decided.”

Usain Bolt. Katie Ledecky. Michael Phelps. The US Women’s Gymnastics team.  In this Olympic season we collectively pause to contemplate greatness and excellence as the world’s best athletes compete in carefully adjudicated sports, with times measured to hundredths of a second, and the title of “World’s Best” at stake. We examine Usain Bolt’s long, muscular frame and we could easily dismiss him as “born to run.” Michael Phelps’ extraordinarily long reach aids him as he propels himself through the water. Simone Biles’ compact build seems made for the floor routine. Are they born to it? What does it take to be elite?

10,000 hours.

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell outlined a common factor among leading innovators, athletes, and experts in a variety of fields – 10,000 hours of focused practice. This research reinforced and depended in no small amount on the work of Anders Ericsson, a brain scientist whose research suggested the same correlation between practice time and success.  While not simple, the number at least seems straightforward. Measurable. More like a goal than a mystery.

As educators, charged with aiding the most natural human process of learning, we turned this 10,000 number over in our heads. 10,000 minutes. How many hours was that? And in school days? Weeks? How exactly to get to this goal? 6 hours a day, 180 days a year. Well, simple: we could get there by the middle of 10th grade with every student … if we remained focused on only one subject. And so, to try and do this for every student, the work seems impossible. Frustratingly, Gladwell’s evidence is largely anecdotal. There are naysayers, like the author of this Business Insider article who claimed to “destroy” Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule.

And there are other authors who, as with any innovative and popular idea, had been researching in the same field and explored the notion further. One of those authors is Daniel Coyle, whose book The Talent Code unpacks the notion of being born with certain talent. He concludes, in the subtitle of his book, “Greatness isn’t born. It’s grown. Here’s how.”

As with Gladwell’s book, Coyle’s uses prominent athletes along with somewhat lesser known musicians and other experts. And while he recognizes the importance of time in improving skills, he explores areas where not just one athlete or team, but instead many, have achieved excellence and prominence. These people do not have more time than others available to them. There is something powerful in how they use that time. Gladwell recognized that important detail in his book, that excellence is not something to be stumbled upon at the end of 10,000 hours of just any sort of practice, and wrote an article to dispel the idea. Instead, these authors understand that you have to be working on a skill at the edge of the student’s abilities. The area that Lev Vygotsky called the “zone of proximal development,” where our skills are being challenged and our work is improving in speed and accuracy. An area which, not coincidentally I believe, has all the characteristics of the conditions of “flow” as researched and explained by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Jeff Brokamp, Principal of Walnut Hills High School, by many measures the best public high school in Ohio and an annual member of the US News and World Report’s national best schools list, feels that this book has an important message for educators. “Every teacher should read this,” he told me. I replied that I think everyone who works with learners should read it. Subsequently, I have shared it with my coaches and recommended it to teachers who have asked how to improve their practice. Here is why I share it with those who are interested in getting the most out of their limited time with learners.

Coyle breaks the “talent code” by declaring it a process of 3 key parts. Helpfully, these are all controllable factors: deep practice, ignition, and master coaching. While the book seems targeted at coaching athletics, it has powerful implications for the academic classroom.

Deep Practice

In deep practice, the student enters a “highly targeted, error-focused process” of stopping and focusing on repairing small errors. Whether it is a clarinetist working – as if from a blueprint – on getting each note right in a challenging passage, or a pilot working on the skill of instrument-only flying in the “Blue Box”, deep practice focuses narrowly on a specific skill. A quick illustration of the concept comes from Brazil’s soccer team, where players – due to a lack of resources including soccer fields – practice in a highly confined space, using soccer balls that are smaller and heavier. In this way, the unintended consequence of insufficient resources is a mastery of the ball handling skills required to out-maneuver an opponent on the field. While much of the game of soccer is spread out on the open field, these pivotal moments of defender vs ball-handler really determine the outcome of the game by allowing a team to control possession and set up more shots and better shots on goal.

Deep Practice in the Classroom

In the academic classroom, a math teacher can emulate the deep practice model by breaking down a math process into its component parts. If a particular step slows down or confounds one or more or her students, the teacher can provide practice just on that step. Instead of having students run over the open fields portion of the questions, the parts they already have mastered, wasting precious classroom time, the teacher can isolate many examples of those particular steps. The student can enter deep practice by practicing, over and over, the specific skill they lack. This intense practice speeds growth and maximizes the little time we have.

This can also happen by using the concept of writing across the curriculum where every student is asked to write in response to every question in every class. This creates additional practice where some students would otherwise simply tune out or attend to something other than the question at hand.  In a typical classroom, a teacher covering a concept can pose a question to the group and have only a few hands go up. The response might be to call on one of those whose hands are up. A more skilled teacher might recognize that he has called on those students already and ask for additional volunteers. A master teacher will use the concept of cold-calling and writing to learn to ensure deep practice. Here’s how that works. For the key concepts in a lesson, instead of calling out a question to ultimately be answered by one student, the master teacher asks every student to write their response. This creates almost universal engagement with the question. If students then pair up and share those answers with each other, then offer their own or their partner’s response to the whole group, each child has twice engaged with the question and possible answers. When shown or guided to the correct answer by a skilled teacher, the student can refer to their written notes and their conversation – their deep practice. The work is rewarded with the right answer, and they have put themselves in a position to understand why it is right, or at least to remember it better. This process takes a little longer than the traditional call and singular response, but increasing participation from 1 to 28 students in the same period of time makes it far more efficient.

Ignition

“If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery it would not seem so wonderful at all.” – Michelangelo

There are three steps to help someone move from merely understanding deep practice to helping it happen. Collectively Coyle calls these “ignition.” Some children arrive in the world with a “rage to master” a new skill or skills, according to the appropriately-named psychologist Ellen Winner. Perhaps all children arrive with it, and their environment either nurtures that or stifles it. However, creating the conditions for igniting learning is not a mystery. Through all the examples of individual passion and genius like that of world-record holder Katie Ledecky, Coyle sees evidence of three common steps available when ignition finally happens

  • Chunking and slowing it down – the best learners and masters of skills find ways to master small steps within the larger skill. In reading, we master the sounds of letters even as we are memorizing common words as a whole. Together these skills help us read for understanding and attack new words we have not seen. Again, with a musician as an example, rather than practicing the whole piece over and over again, chunking means breaking the work into parts, then focusing in on the areas that are difficult, and not wasting time with the parts already mastered. Additionally, the masters slow a skill down to understand its component parts. While they do this, myelin is still forming, and they are understanding the pieces and how they fit together. This way they can focus on eliminating errors, and understand the blueprint of the larger whole.
  • Repeating it – the deep practice model calls for a lot of targeted practice. Over and over again. You hear it from the greatest athletes, as well as researchers and artists. They are practicing their skills, researching their fields, over and over again. Typically about 10 years’ worth of practice is what it takes to become elite in the field.
  • Feeling it – Coyle is quick to point out that none of the actual masters in their fields with whom he spoke used the words “easy”, “natural”, or “genius” to describe what they had accomplished. Instead they described their practice using words like “alert”, “edge”, “focus”, “mistake” and “repeat.” In short, even in practice they were working toward a goal and feeling the effort closing the gap between where they were and where they wanted to be.

Ignition then happens when these parts are in place, and the artist, athlete, or academician sees themselves as engaging in a task to achieve a long-term goal. Perhaps they see someone in the field who they want to emulate, or they have a life goal of achievement in a certain area. A commonality among the champions is that they knew they wanted to be champions, and they knew that it would take a long time. And, most importantly, they identified with someone who had accomplished what they wanted. They knew they belonged at the top.

Greatness isn’t born. It’s grown. Here’s how.

Ignition in the classroom

Ignition then has clear implications in the classroom, closely tied with research by Carol Dweck in the area of Mindset. Students need to understand the work in front of them, be willing and able to engage in the work of targeted growth, and, importantly, see themselves as capable of being successful over time.

Additionally, students benefit from seeing how they belong to something bigger and more important than themselves. In the classroom, we can help students feel part of something bigger by telling the story of our classroom or school, and particularly of students who achieved lofty goals who emerged through these same classrooms and hallways. We can also build connections to professionals in the field through intersessions and other real-world experiences, and innovative projects such as Gamble Montessori’s Senior Project (to be featured here soon.) In this way, we can demystify success and expertise, and put it within range of every student.

Master Coaching

In the hotbeds of success explored by Coyle, he saw another common theme: a master coach. Coyle watched a master coach, Hans Jesson, walk two students through cello lessons. Coyle asked, after the lesson, which of the cellists were better. Coyle believed the first was much better and was surprised when Jensson struggled with the question. “It’s difficult to say. When I teach, I give everyone everything. What happens after that, who can know?” Basketball Coach John Wooden is the winningest coach in men’s college basketball history. When his coaching style was explored through scripting and breaking down every audible comment, his coaching was found to be lacking in overt inspiration, and instead was infused with practice. An article by two researchers even found that he had a particular sequence of events he used so often they dubbed it a “Wooden”: he showed the player the right way to do something, imitated the wrong way they had just done it, and then he showed them the right way again.

Master coaches have what Coyle calls a “matrix” – a vast understanding of the task and what is needed to accomplish it well. Also, they have a perceptiveness about the needs for each of the individuals with whom they work. Third, they possess what he calls a “probing, strategic impatience,” where they interrupt practice to strengthen specific things they see need work. Finally, they possess a “theatrical honesty” with which they point out mistakes almost as if each mistake was the end of the world, then transform that moment into a chance for new learning, which is equally theatrically praised.

Master Coaching in the Classroom

It is the work of the teacher to become a master coach in the classroom. Meet students where they are, through pre-assessments and close examination of work to determine their level, then using differentiation and targeted practice to help them continually work within their zone of proximal development. That is – they need to become experts not just in their area of teaching, but also at seeing where their students are currently, and how to move them forward.

A reading teacher might work with a student reading aloud, inviting them back to the word they just mispronounced, or even back to the start of the sentence to make sure they read it at a fast enough speed, or with sufficient fluency, to get meaning from it. One student might get assistance with pronunciation and decoding, while another might get assistance with sentence inflection.

Most importantly, a master teacher can forge a personal connection of trust and love with his students. This happens through hard work, masquerading as effortless “being there” for students. Thus, building relationships become the fundamental first step of learning.

You know we worked harder than you. (Author's paraphrase.)
You know we worked harder than you. (Author’s paraphrase.)

The Brain Science of Deep Practice and Master Coaching

Every signal the brain sends travels along a path of neurons. That path is coated and reinforced by a recently-understood substance called myelin. The more the pathway is used, the more it is reinforced. This is true for every skill and every action, whether the action is correct or not. This, of course, has implications for all of our actions. As a teacher, it has important implications for teaching and re-teaching as a primary tool to address not just classroom errors but disciplinary matters as well.

Deep practice of specialized, broken down skills develops myelin in important information and skills that will need to be recalled. In this way, practices in the classroom that create multiple chances to learn a skill, such as deep practice, will physically change the brain of the student. Practicing the correct skills correctly, can permanently improve students’ acquisition of the target skill and related skills. If we can expand to an entire classroom answering a question, this is 28 times the amount of growth we would get in a traditional classroom. If we can target the practice to a specific skill and cram 6 or 8 practices of the skill instead of 2 practices of the whole process, then this is growth at a factor of 3 to 4 times the traditional classroom. That’s a lot of myelin, laying the groundwork for a superhighway of correct skills.

Master coaching means, in short, understanding which pathways are not yet developed. Looking closely at student skills and addressing deficiencies promptly and accurately helps ensure that the right pathways are being formed. This is why it is important that we correct students’ grammar at every opportunity, and teach them to make eye contact and give a firm handshake at every greeting. This is also why at Gamble we use the Teach Like a Champion skill of No Opt Out, where a student who gets the answer wrong has a chance to hear the correct answer, then must give the correct answer verbally to the teacher. The right action reinforces the learning. We are creating powerful habits that sometimes are working to erase older powerful habits. The master coach does not pass up an opportunity to help rebuild it the correct way.

In a way, we are all called to be John Wooden in the classroom. However, the work has been demystified. In order to create superhighways of excellent practice, we need to utilize deep practice – chunk the work, practice it over and over, and help students understand when it is right. We need to help students see the value of their work and identify with those who use the work in a valuable way in our society. We need to build deep relationships of trust with students, and we need to provide them very specific interventions at the time when they need it. Most of us do most of this just about every day.

What area seems most natural for you? Which area will be the biggest struggle? We welcome your comments.

What’s Your Story?

-by Jack M. Jose

“A hundred years later, their spirit lives on,” claims the commercial for the Dodge Motor Company. In one action-packed minute we see a fast-paced parade of evolving Dodge cars engaged in a road race between the competitive Dodge brothers, “pushing each other like only a brother can.” We are left with a sense of striving to perform better, and go faster.

A Nike commercial aired during the 2016 Olympics shows transgender Olympic athlete Chris Mosier training over time. He gets asked multiple questions along the lines of “How did you know you would be strong enough to compete against men? How did you know that the team would accept you?” He responds to each, “I didn’t.” Finally he is asked, “Didn’t you ever want to give up?”

“Yeah, but I didn’t.”

Chris Mosier Nike Ad
Chris Mosier’s tenacity communicates a core value at Nike. “I didn’t quit.”

The commercials are thrilling, inspiring even. Stories are a powerful way to convey a feeling or a central tenet of a company, a brand, or even a school or community. Stories can evoke emotions and create a sense of familiarity and loyalty in a way that almost nothing else can. Stories promote achievement, action for a cause, and loyalty.

What is your institution’s story?

Who founded it? Why does it carry this name? What is important to you? What memorable people made their mark? Who do you hope to inspire?

And, most importantly, what qualities do you hope to instill in the people who work there and the people you serve?

We tell stories about our workplace all the time, but which stories are those? Unfortunately, all too often, we tell the stories of someone trying to skirt the rules to their own benefit, an act of vandalism, or thoughtlessness on the part of a co-worker. We tell “war stories” to demonstrate that we are seasoned veterans, and in part to help ourselves understand the truly unusual and confusing things that happen in our day. It makes sense on an individual level, but it raises important questions about the health of your institution.

If someone was listening to our stories, and had only our words to form their opinion, what would they think about our school? If those negative incidents are the only stories we tell, what does that reveal about us? What are our priorities? What are our values?

You see, you are already telling the story of your institution every day. So why not construct it the way you want it to be told?

At the start of each year at Gamble Montessori, we tell our story. In a nod to the key Montessori lessons, we call it the Gamble Great Lesson. You can see a short version of it, edited for the general public and to fit a predetermined theme, here. We got the idea to tell our story from Brian Cundiff, the Executive Vice President of Operations at LaRosa’s Pizzeria. We had approached him for advice on developing a system for training and supporting teachers who were new to the school. His advice formed a large part of our Teacher:Teacher mentoring program. But he started the meeting by telling us about his company’s founder, Cincinnati legend Buddy LaRosa. Buddy had one goal, Brian told us at the end, he wanted to make the customer smile. That way you knew you had made them happy.

As he explained the LaRosa’s training program to us, Brian kept returning to the story. The program starts with the story, and a related mission statement is posted in a prominent place at every store. Their customer service survey asks, “Did we make you smile?”

We knew we had to tell our story the same way. And we had to tell it repeatedly. LaRosa’s told the story over and over, in different formats. Companies brand theirs onto clothing, signs around the workplace, and advertising. Our friend Marta Donahoe, co-founder of our sister school Clark Montessori and CMStep (an international Montessori teacher training program), explained that the reason you tell a story like this over and over is because “you want them to feel it in their bones.” We understand what she means. The story should become part of who your employees are, and they should be able to embody the values of your institution.

Mentoring LaRosas

Our story is powerful. Not because I am an evocative writer, but because we tell stories of the strength and generosity of our students, and how we have humbly learned from them. It is not uncommon for teachers to cry when they hear it. (It’s not all that unusual for me to cry when I tell it.) Teachers have told me it helps them get through hard days, because they remember the bigger picture of what we are doing. Teachers from other schools approach to say how inspirational the story is, eager to return and tell their own. Our story has garnered a lot of attention in our field, and we have presented to groups how we created it. Krista and I have taught other educators how to tell their story.

The process of writing your story can be uncomfortable, but is not especially difficult.

You can do assignment #1 now, at your computer: Write about a time in your school or in your classroom when a child met or exceeded your expectations for being their best self. This could include an act of kindness, an act of social bravery, a moment of self-discovery a moment of learning, or something else.

Before you start (unless it’s too late, in which case you don’t need to hear this!): Be Brave. Be open to sharing and be open to revising your ideas until you get it right. Then find a friend, or a stranger, and share your stories with them. (We use shoulder partners in our presentation.) Watch their reactions. Ask them for their feedback. Or share them with a co-worker who knows the story. Often a person familiar with the details can tell you the part of the event that resonated with them, remember important details you left out, or point out the parts that you, the storyteller, tell with clear passion. Then tweak the story to emphasize these pieces.

You can do this now, if you have someone nearby, or keep reading and do it later.

You see, you are already telling the story of your institution every day. So why not construct it the way you want it to be told?

Starting from a story is a natural way to go about it, but you can also start from the traits you want to emphasize at your school and work backwards from there. Here is a list of possible traits to prompt your imagination:

 

Kindness Social bravery Leadership
Self-discovery Learning Changing perspective
Grace Courtesy Encouraging others
Patience Responsibility Loyalty
Forgiveness Honesty Compassion
Humility Perseverance Creativity

Of course there are others. You can find them in your school’s motto or vision and mission statements, or the core values if you have those.

Assignment #2: Working from those identified values, brainstorm stories involving your students and staff that show those traits. Then choose one and tell the long version with the extra details that help make it real. You are telling a true story, and you want them to inhabit the moment.

Some people find it easier to work in this direction, from the concepts to the stories rather than starting from the stories and identifying the values.

Gamble’s Great Lesson, which you can read here, features stories about students who exemplify grace and courtesy, who look out for each other, and who accomplished academic feats. It pays homage to the families and teachers who started the school, which is important to us. It shows how we can choose to see every event in a positive light, and that we value grit and inclusivity, and that we –time and again – rise to a challenge. Almost none of these virtues are named in the lesson. Instead they are revealed in the stories we choose to tell. This is the power of a well-chosen story – it conveys a notion far more powerfully than a vision statement or a list of core values.

Once you have assembled your stories, it makes sense to connect them with an overarching narrative or metaphor, and/or place them on a timeline. Our story does a bit of both, talking about the school as if it is a developing child, and using a timeline, which complements the idea of a child growing over time. This is a helpful structure for us, because we have been in existence a short time. I can imagine someone at an older school telling a story structured in sections based on the relevant virtue exhibited, with brief vignettes told rapidly to build a sense of the consistency of the virtues over time.

What qualities do you hope to instill in the people who work there and the people you serve?

When your Great Lesson is finished, and you have worked it out with one or more trusted editors, you must tell the story. You must set aside time, in a formal way, to sit the group down and tell them the story. This “real” telling of the story, as opposed to the video version linked in the opening paragraphs above, should include artifacts. These can be almost anything from professional pictures to trinkets from important events. Ours includes professional graduation pictures of a couple students we mention, a glamour shot of the school, a piece of spiritwear, and a grainy cell phone picture of the senior night basketball game in 2012. Yours is limited to what is easy to display as you tell the story. I sit on the floor in front of my staff, but yours doesn’t have to be. However, the telling must be formal. Tell it to your students. Tell it to your teammates. Tell it to the employees. Tell it to your advertisers. Just tell it. Regularly. We tell it at the start of each school year. Then improve it, add to it, extend it, but keep it the same at its core.

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In every institution there are stories we tell repeatedly. We have done this from the dawn of language. These span from Homeric tales of bravery told around a campfire, to slick advertisements aired during the Super Bowl. Our stories reveal the soul of the society and institutions that created them. The ones we tell over and over are the most important stories. Thursday afternoon I told it to our Teacher:Teacher Mentoring group. Tuesday before that I told it to my entire staff at our annual staff retreat. Sunday night before that I told it to a meeting of our mentors. After telling it to my staff, I invite my staff to tell it to our students.

Tell yours again and again, until your people can feel it in their bones. That is, tell it until everyone deeply understands the values it imparts; then keep telling it because it brings comfort and courage.

We would love to hear your Great Lesson. Send it to us. Do you want feedback on where to start? Just ask.