Control in the Classroom: Letting Students Lead

I hadn’t been teaching very long before I discovered that my students were naturally boundary pushers who wanted the approval of the adults around them. I came to the conclusion that managing a classroom was a balance of subtle approvals and implicit corrections. Running a classroom, like the game “Operation”, took a pretty steady hand. Getting a group of naturally oppositional and quasi-autonomous adolescents through the Cincinnati Public Schools English curriculum, especially the independent reading requirement, was a challenge. Many of my students were disinterested in reading. Or at least they lacked the skill set and the resources to figure out how to pick an engaging new book, so picking six over the course of the year was a daunting task.

Worse yet, I had unwisely placed restrictions on the books they could choose – I told them it had to have a certain number of pages, and that I had to approve it (among things I considered very important at the time were reading level and font size.) I guess I was trying to prevent them from reading the Magic School Bus, or maybe I was concerned that students would try to bring in a stack of Dr. Seuss books and read them in a single sitting, thus completing their independent reading requirement.

So I got some of the things wrong. I know now that most young readers need a lot of help selecting a new book – recommendations from friends about the subject area, engaging main characters, and strong writing were necessary supports to get a non-reader into a new book. I also know now that even good readers routinely select books far easier than their current reading level. Readers, even good ones, don’t necessarily read or revisit easier books because they lack reading skills or as an attempt to skirt the rules, but because they find that particular book engaging. No reader wants to be at the “frustration” level in every book they read, and certainly young readers don’t want this.

But I got one thing right. Wanting to take advantage of the rebelliousness, I issued each student a photocopy of a list entitled “The 100 Most Commonly Banned Books in the US.” We talked about why books might get banned, either from communities or certain schools. We marveled that the Bible and the Quran were both on the list. Students leaned forward in their seats as they defended the right of authors to say whatever they wanted in a book, and a small cadre of black students defended the use of racist language in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. “Look, that’s probably what he called Jim. Jim didn’t seem to mind.” To a person they were shocked and a little outraged that an individual school, district, or town could simply ban a book.

And then, when they were at the height of the discussion, I reminded them of the reading requirement. And then I added, “I hope you will consider choosing your independent reading books from the most banned books list.” I pointed to a few that other students had enjoyed reading, including Go Ask Alice, The Outsiders, and The Chocolate War, and challenged my best readers to take on Brave New World, which explored themes of dystopia that matched our second semester theme.  We scratched a couple off the list however, including To Kill a Mockingbird, which we had already completed, and Of Mice and Men. I told them, “We are going to read that in class this spring.”

As I had hoped, students arrived the next Monday with their books, many checked out from the library instead of purchased. Some were excited to report that they had started reading already. One student expressed disappointment. “I read my whole book over the weekend, Mr. Jose: The Giver. I don’t know why it was banned. There’s nothing in there that’s bad.” In a brief exchange, I related why the themes of the book were controversial in some areas, and then I asked her to hold on to that idea, because the themes related so closely to our second semester work. (The next year, largely because of our conversation, I added the reading to my dystopia unit.)

What had I done? Sure, I had tapped into their inner rebel. I knew that would help. More importantly, though, I had given them choice. Students who have this kind of control in the classroom, to help drive the direction of their instruction, are far more likely to get engaged with their learning. Adolescents are naturally keen to push back against unreasonable limitations. I had given them a tacit permission to question authority, to doubt the justice in banning certain books, and to explore the boundaries that various communities placed on their students.

Giving students choice in the classroom is one way to let students lead.

Letting students lead means giving up some control in the classroom

At Edutopia, Rebecca Alber explores student choice in her article “5 Ways to Give Your Students More Voice and Choice” She proposes allowing students to lead their learning by expressing what they wanted to learn about, or having a team of students explore a topic they collectively found interesting. Structuring their interests to guide further learning, and thinking out loud to model how one topic builds on another help build skills that will serve a lifelong learner. Finally she suggests allowing students to have a voice in how their work will be graded.

George Couros, author of The Innovator’s Mindset, is an advocate for unleashing students’ creativity in the classroom. He regularly posts ways for educators to help students create content and take charge of aspects of their own education. His recent post on creating meaningful change highlighted an important part of the professional creative process. He asked the question, “What if every teacher tweeted one thing a day they did in their classroom to a school hashtag and took five minutes a day to read each others’ tweets? What would that do for learning and school culture?” He is asking, what if we were listening to each other?

We are asking, what if we were listening to our students?

Each year, for each sport, Gamble Montessori honors our senior athletes at our last home game for each sport. But eight years ago we had no tradition, we only had our first graduating class. Tracy Lynn proposed a senior night as she had seen the previous year, when we were combined with Clark Montessori for volleyball. But then she took it a step further. She encouraged us to honor the seniors from the visiting team as well. So as part of our ceremony that night, she received a flower, a miniature volleyball with her uniform number on it, and individual recognition. Our opponent’s seniors were also recognized individually and given a flower. A student showed us grace and courtesy by thinking of her opponents.

Our school started in 2005. That means our first groups of students had a lot of opportunities to impact the whole history of the school. So we helped them lead.  When we formed, we did not have a mascot and school colors. In fact, we were initially formed with a school name we would later officially change. Some teachers approached me and our LSDMC (a local school decision-making committee, empowered by the Board of Education to make key decisions regarding the school, including approving the budget and helping hire the principal) with their ideas for branding the school. “How often does a teacher get to choose their school’s mascot and colors?” they asked. It was clear in one case that the teacher had given the matter considerable thought, presenting me with color drawings of his intended mascot. I rejected it, politely, and turned the decision over to our students.

How often does a student get to choose her high school’s mascot and colors?

Our teachers led our first graduating class through a process of brainstorming and winnowing the choices, with the goal of selecting our permanent mascot and school colors. At the end of the process, the students returned a mascot proposal, and a surprise. Predictably, perhaps, they chose as our mascot a “Gator”. This made us alliteratively the Gamble Gators, and this also matched the mascot many of them had brought with them from our feeder elementary school, the Dater Gators.

The surprise came from letting our seniors lead: given the option to make the choice themselves as the first graduating class, they decided to share that privilege with their schoolmates. They asked me to let the entire school vote on our school colors. At our direction, they narrowed down the options to a ballot of five color choices, and planned a vote to take place the last week of school their junior year. They tallied the results and sealed them in an envelope, which I received minutes before stepping out in front of our entire school. The result was NOT what I would have chosen. And that is fine. The students chose purple and green. Purple and green we are.

In this way we allowed our students to lead in creating our school. There are other important places where we allow them to make important decisions about their own education each year.

As a requirement for graduation, our students must complete an immersive year-long investigation of a specific topic that is then presented to an audience of peers, parents, teachers, and other adults from the community. We call this simply senior project. Through a process of self-exploration and conversation with teachers and peers, a student derives his senior project topic late in his junior year. Compared to a traditional approach to selecting topics, where a teacher presents a list of topics students might encounter in a book (at least, that was how I used to do it in my classroom), students are more deeply engaged. Often students pick a topic that is not just of intellectual importance, but of deep personal relevance, exploring matters of faith, relationships, race and discrimination. Other times they pick a topic that is engaging to them and sustains them through hours of reading and research. This can create profound realizations that transcend the curriculum.

Having students lead means letting them work at the top of Bloom’s taxonomy.

In senior project students are provided choice in how to show mastery of a topic. This was a model I used in my own classroom, and was made easier, I am sure, by the fact that I taught English. Students could show mastery of certain aspects of a unit through writing an essay, of course, but successful student projects in my class included dioramas demonstrating mastery of aspects of setting, drawings depicting theme, or (one of my favorites) playlists of popular songs depicting characterization. Students were creating their own vision of how to show they had learned. This is profound, because a student who is asked to design her own assessment must not only think about the content, but think about how best to represent it. This is a cognitively demanding task, at the top of Bloom’s taxonomy – a combination of synthesis and evaluation.

Helping students take control of the classroom (or even make key school decisions) can be scary. It should be thought out, and intentional, and it is appropriate for the teacher to set parameters. There are aspects of the work that are rightly variables for students to manipulate, and there are some which must remain firmly the teacher’s call. Certainly boundaries of decency, fairness and inclusion, and demonstration of mastery remain the full responsibility of the adult guiding the learner.

Creating work within those boundaries can provide students opportunities to grow and claim meaningful ownership of their work and work process. This is the greatest learning we can structure for them. By calling out to their inner rebel, and setting them up to challenge themselves … and then rise to that challenge, we create lifelong learners.

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.

We don’t play dodgeball in PE (and it’s not why you think)

A dodgeball

Gamble Montessori, as a new school, established a varsity football program relatively recently. Then we came in second in our first 3 football games. But this hot Saturday in early September, we had a good feeling. We had 24 young men on the team, which meant that though many of our best players would spend the balmy afternoon playing offense AND defense, we would have the chance to do some substituting. Having this few students always put us at a disadvantage against our opponents from bigger schools, but today we were playing a rival from a nearby program, a K-12 school from CPS: Oyler High School. They had just about the same number of players, which meant they would be as tired as us in the 4th quarter. So instead of watching a 4th quarter lead evaporate, as it had in 2 of our first 3 losses, there was a chance that we could build a lead and then win a war of attrition under the hot autumn sun.

Our Gamble Gators team did not have a lot of amenities. The coaches and players themselves carried much of the equipment onto the field, much of which had been borrowed or donated to the program: a parent-purchased kicking tee, two water coolers borrowed from the school’s camping supplies, and 6 Gatorade squirt bottles donated by a vending company rounded out our sideline possessions. At least today we were wearing matching uniforms in the school colors of green, purple, and black. This was a step up from the pre-season, when the local newspaper ran pictures from summer practice with our players in borrowed uniforms of brown and white, the word “BEARS” emblazoned across the front of each pictured jersey. A couple of fathers who had volunteered to help with the team, perhaps discouraged by our slow start, had other plans develop for this Saturday afternoon, and I soon realized that we had no waterboy on the sideline. So I volunteered for the job.

Not the Bears.

It is a unique  and humorous experience – observing the look on a player’s face when he realizes the waterboy who just arrived in the huddle is his principal.

In addition to having the authority to direct the young men to take a drink they might otherwise refuse, being waterboy meant I was present on the field in a unique way. I had access I did not usually get – even as the principal of the school – access that is unique to the sport. Only the coaches and players themselves were closer to the action. This was how I got to see Jordan Sheffeld up close. Jordan was an exceptional athlete. A strong lineman with unusual agility, he could keep his balance well when blocking and tackling. On most teams, the quarterback was the onfield leader, but our young program had a freshman in that position, and so Jordan, who played offense and defense on most downs, was a team captain. He was the one who calmed down players in the huddle, and he could adjust the players based on the call that came in from the sidelines. This was part, but not all, of how he won the game for us that day.

Long story short, the game went just as described above. We got out to an early lead. A strong defensive stand in the middle of the final quarter meant we could run out the clock and seal our first ever program win.

Coach West (right) moments after a Gatorade shower celebrating the Gamble Gators first football win.

I spoke to him Monday after the game. “Jordan, you were remarkable.”

“Thanks, Mr. Jose.”

“But do you know what you did?”

“Well, we won. So, I guess that was what I was thinking you were talking about.” He gave me a quizzical look and paused digging in his locker. “What are YOU talking about?”

“Well, you know that guy who lined up across from you?” He said he did, and supplied his uniform number and, to my surprise, his name. He explained that they had played basketball and football together growing up. I continued, “Well, you dominated him.”

“Yes, I suppose I did,” he grinned at being recognized. In fact, on several plays he recorded what is called in football a “pancake.” It is a descriptive phrase for how the guy you blocked looked after the block: flat on his back, like a pancake.

“But it wasn’t just knocking him down. It was that after each play, you picked him back up. And then, on the next snap, you knocked him down. One time when I ran out there, I swear you told him, ‘It’s okay, you’ll get me next time.’”

“Um, yeah, I remember telling him that.” He smiled at the subtle taunt. “I told him some other stuff too.”

“But then you picked him up again. You know what you did?” I waited till he looked me in the eye. “He didn’t put up much of a fight in the 4th quarter, did he? It’s because you broke his spirit. With good sportsmanship, and a dominant physical performance, you defeated his desire to beat you.

“I would say that you provided about the most Montessori performance one could ask for – you did your job perfectly, for the whole game, and you picked up your opponent after each play, then went out to beat him again.”

Montessori education is occasionally parodied as the refuge of pampered upper middle class children who clamor for participation medals after lacing their shoes. These imagined Montessori children become weak-kneed in the face of competition, and they blanch at the prospect of hard work.

In fact, the Montessori athlete is much like any other. Reveling in a sense of personal growth and self-development, Montessori athletes understand that practice is an important part of successful performance, and they embrace challenges in team and individual situations. They are not magical thinkers who only find satisfaction in winning, and thus seek out ways to be seen as winning without effort. Instead, they are hard workers who understand that competition with others is an important part of the athletic equation. In fact, it is often through competition with others that some of us can discover the inner drive to be our best selves. They seek out tests of their strength and speed and acumen. They challenge the clock, and set personal goals for weight lifted or the accuracy of a throw, or the excellence of an intended outcome.

The untested or unchallenged student athlete might believe wrongly that she is the best at an activity merely because she feels an intense sense of freedom within the activity itself. The Montessori child has moved beyond defining her performance solely on the basis of how it feels in the moment or solely on the basis of whether the work produces a victory. I think we all, at some point as children, believed we were the fastest runners in the world. Our children call us over, breathless, to watch them run across the yard at what seems to us to be an entirely ordinary child’s speed, then they insist to us that they are practically flying, and look to us for confirmation. What can we say? “Yes, indeed, that WAS very fast!” And our parents relate that we, too, repeated this ritual in our youth. So only when our children line up next to our neighbors’ children and see that one or two of them are far faster, do they begin to understand that running fast is a gift and a blessing, but running faster requires preparation and skill.

An athlete lines up a free throw.

Most sports confer this concept adequately, but some sports do it better than others. For instance, runners in cross country and track, while they run against each other and there is a winner in the sport, are also always running against their own best times and the conditions of the track. Additionally, a runner can compete against published record times and a personal best time; in a sense, any runner can “compete” against the very best runners in their city, county, state, or the world, by reviewing posted times. In these sports, as students enter any competition with any number of opponents, there are two goals ever in mind, both require individual improvement: beat the fastest person, achieve my fastest personal time.

Some team sports develop this duality better than others.

Football exemplifies a team sport with many factors that complicate individual improvement. In this most recent season, 2016, our football team found itself on both sides of lopsided games. We won an important rivalry by 35 points early in the season. Five weeks later we lost by nearly 40 points. Had we gotten weaker? Slower? Less skilled? Had we truly regressed the comparative equivalent of 80 points? While the competition on the field offered each player the chance to practice his skills and improve himself in each game, the physical size and number of players on one football team can serve to mask the personal growth or regression. The tremendous advantage of size is compounded over the course of four quarters, in some cases making it less about personal improvement and more about personal safety. In each lopsided game, the smaller team found itself physically outmatched, and unable to improve in their skills. A taller basketball team starts with an advantage that is not unsurmountable, but which noticeably impacts the game at each end of the court on every possession.

Gamble teachers play a game at our summer retreat.

It is important to note that the fields and courts used by our athletics teams are not the place where MOST of our students experience athletics at school. We require EVERY student to take physical education. In these physical education classes, our goal should be to encourage every child to understand what it means to be fit, and to seek out ways to, among other things, recognize “the value of physical activity for health, enjoyment, challenge, self-expression and/or social interaction.”[1] Part of this is teaching students the rules and spirit of different sports. And, of course, that should be done in a way that promotes health, safety, and a sense of community. One uncontroversial adjustment made at most (if not all) schools is teaching flag football or “touch” football (where one or two hands on an opponent with the ball ends the play). Of course we make adjustments to make that sport safer. In other sports we make minor variations to increase participation as well, such as creating balanced teams and modifying rules to increase enjoyment among students who are less athletic. (Unfortunately, these sometimes are categorized as “girls’ rules” in some places, which sends distressing messages to our most athletic girls and our least athletic boys.)

We SHOULD make adjustments to these sports to make them more inclusive in physical education class. We should support and encourage our students to think about how to make the adjustments to create more inclusive but still cooperative games that they play on the playground and in the neighborhood. Cooperative game guru Karl Rohnke, author of Silver Bullets, a collection of cooperative games, provides a rationale for adjusting games on the fly: what is the point of a game if it is only fun for a few? Another pair of games enthusiasts, Adam Fletcher and Kari Kunst, introduce their article with a quote that suggests the existence of two kinds of games, the finite one, with fixed rules and a winner and loser, and the infinite one, which features changing rules and an intent to never end.[2]

Now, about dodgeball.

When I directed my physical education teacher to stop playing dodgeball in class, some of my students were vocally upset. Others were supportive. I was confident that I had taken an important stand for what is good about athletics, and what can be bad about it. My decision was not based on stories of injuries and lawsuits. I was aware of some of them, like the Bronx school where an ill-advised indoor recess dodgeball game resulted in painful and expensive broken orthodontia from a soccer ball that struck a student who had opted out of the game. I had heard myriad stories about broken bones and bloody noses, but at the time I was not aware of state-wide bans in summer camps in New Hampshire and New York. My decision was not even, or at least not entirely, driven by the regular appearance of students in my office who had been wounded physically during dodgeball, or who had been wounded emotionally by the prospect of having things thrown at them by more athletic and more aggressive students.

No, it was primarily that dodgeball differs significantly from traditional team sports. Unlike basketball or soccer, there is little opportunity for actual strategy or running designed plays. Unlike individual sports, there is no measure for judging whether you have improved or even mastered a skill. In short, there seemed no argument for it. There were better ways to practice throwing for accuracy, and running, and even dodging. Kick ball for instance offered a chance to do these things, with the opportunity for respite at the next base, or the chance to score a run and assist the team. Meanwhile, in dodge ball, instead of providing ongoing support and contributing to the group’s success, your team is slowly whittled away.  The acceptable athletics strategy of attacking another team’s weakness means, in dodgeball, that the least athletic student starts the game being targeted by one or more of the best athletes on the other side of the line, each throwing balls in his or her direction. This player then spends the bulk of the game, perhaps dazed by being struck with a ball to the head or face, sitting on the sidelines, ostensibly rooting for their team.

It is widely accepted that there are good and bad kinds of competition. I believe that dodgeball is inherently structured to emphasize the potential negative aspects of competitive games. It defies modification. Even as a fifth grader, I recognized the irony in the rule added by my PE teacher, who announced that if you got hit in the face you were not out. He meant to encourage us to throw balls at our classmates’ bodies, but the practical application was that moments after you got hit in the face, your teacher announced that you were still a viable target, and a dazed and embarrassed target at that.

In immediate response to the ban, students posted a petition in the hallway outside the gym. Thoughtfully, they included a few caveats for how they would conduct themselves when they played the game in the future. For instance, they suggested that students who were uncomfortable could just opt out. I spoke with the petitioners. I remember vividly our discussion, which focused on this “opt out” clause. Students could choose not to play without penalty. During the conversation, it was acknowledged by several people that it did not make sense to play a game where, by the act of playing it, several students would feel targeted and would instead choose to sit on the sidelines. That concept certainly violated our core value of community, for what is the value of a game if not everyone can enjoy it? If at the outset of the game, we knew that some students would be permitted to not participate? The very act of choosing to play dodgeball would then become exclusionary. One of the students who had signed the petition had privately expressed a concern about the nature of the game to me. I realized that in the conversation, I had to be careful not to expose that she had, in a sense, taken both sides of the argument. She never revealed to her friends her opposition, but, speaking as a signatory of the petition, she provided valuable arguments against dodgeball. She said to the group that the argument about including everyone was a valid point she had not considered.

After a few weeks, the petition was taken down.

Recently, I was approached by a coach who wanted to run a dodgeball tournament as a fundraiser for our program. He approached me as if he had been sent on a fool’s errand. “I heard you’re probably going to say ‘no’ to this request, but I was wondering if we could have a dodgeball tournament?”

“People sign up? Their own choice?”

“Yeah, they pay to enter,” he explained. “We have a small prize for the winner.”

I thought for a second. I considered how this request was different than in physical education class. A group of individuals will self-select to enter this tournament as a group, understanding the rules. Each would opt in because of the cause, or an interest in the game and playing with friends. They will have chosen to take the risk, and would not see it as anything other than fun if they themselves got hit and eliminated from gameplay.

“Sure. Sounds like fun.” My reservation was not about dodgeball the activity, but was instead about requiring children in physical education class to play a game that held so much potential for bad outcomes.

The Gators boys basketball team pauses for a picture following their first ever tournament game.

So, how can we work to make sure all of our students get to participate in our physical education games, and the games we play on field experiences or as community-building activities?

 

Ask yourself these questions, in this order:

  1. Does this include everyone?
  2. Is everyone getting an opportunity to contribute meaningfully to the team / group?
  3. Does it promote physical activity and teach specific skills? Are the roles defined?
  4. Is it fun? (Variations of this question: when someone is “out”, is it fair and clear?
  5. How can I change it so the answers above are all “yes”? (OR At what point in the game can I ask students to change it so the answers above are all “yes”?)

When we teach students to compete in this way, instead of watering down their skills or teaching them that competition is without value, we call out their highest instincts for achievement.

One Monday night last school year, the Gamble varsity volleyball team beat Riverview East in The Swamp (as we call our home field. We are, after all, Gators).  The final point of the 3-game sweep was a smash by Carrie that brought the raucous crowd to their feet.  It was exciting!  However, the best moment of the match for me came 7 points earlier.

On that point, a Gamble player struck the ball, and it landed on the opponent’s line for a point, according to all who saw it.  The volunteer line judge, a Gamble student, flapped his flag indecisively.  Riverview questioned the call and one referee went over to question the linesman, who indicated that he had moved the flag because he was unsure what to do when the ball hit the line.  The referee called out “Gamble point.” However, our girls were already shouting to the head referee, “We will play the point over.”  Just like that, they gave away a point.  And 7 points later, they won anyway.

Having a faith in playing the game the right way, and responding appropriately to confusion over a call, demonstrates the kind of character we are attempting to instill in each of our students.  Applying it during a crucial game against our oldest rival takes respect for self and respect for the game. And it does not cheapen our performance or weaken our skills.

 

[1] National Standards for K-12 Physical Education Copyright 2013, SHAPE America –Society of Health and Physical Educators, 1900 Association Drive, Reston, VA 20191, www.shapeamerica.org.

[2] “Why Play Games When There is Work to Do?”, Fletcher, A., Freechild Newsletter, accessed via the internet at http://campsource.pbworks.com/f/CooperativeGames.pdf 2017.1.15

A Dramatic Turn

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Teachers training to lead the JumpStart Theatre program.

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

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

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

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Watching a video at the breakfast.

Good morning.

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

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

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

So I’m not here to talk about that.

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

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

So I scratched that.

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

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

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

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Jack speaking at the fundraising breakfast.

I want to talk about the students.

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

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

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

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

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

Ty’Esha is a conscientious young lady.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

Mission and Vision

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In this summer’s Professional Learning Communities conference in Minneapolis, Learning Tree Solutions educational legend Richard DuFour stood in front of the group to perform what seemed to be a bit of a large-scale parlor trick. He told us collectively, a crowd of over 1,500 people, that he knew the mission statement at each of our schools.

He then proceeded to prove it.

“At Tree City school,” he intoned, and the words appeared on the screen before us. “We will educate our students to meet their highest potential,” he continued, to a wave of familiar laughter. “To meet or exceed academic goals,” more laughter. “On the standardized tests,” he added. I thought perhaps this was an aside, but the words showed up on the screen with the rest. “To be good citizens,” it was starting to hit home. He DID seem to know everyone’s mission statement, and he ended with a very familiar line. “And to become … say it with me ‘life … long … learners.’” We WERE able to say it with him. He had indeed captured the essence of pretty much every school’s mission statement.

Perhaps you hear echoes of your school’s mission statement in his words. At first it can be disorienting to hear him get so much of it right. Or perhaps it causes frustration, to know that your statement, lovingly crafted by a group of teachers and parents over a period of weeks, sounds like everyone else’s. It may even seem to validate the naysayers – you know, the ones who showed up at the first meeting with a full pre-written mission statement.  Maybe the details of your statement are different, but the structure and focus are the same.

It’s okay. So what if everyone’s school’s missions statement sounds about the same? After all, aren’t our missions all the same? Shouldn’t we be working to create good citizens? Shouldn’t they meet academic expectations? Certainly in the end, they should be well-informed and reasoned voters and citizens. Maybe the mystery is that we don’t all have the same mission statement to start with!

Crafted in our school’s opening year, on a staff retreat designed for setting the vision and mission for the school, Gamble Montessori’s vision statement is: Incorporating Montessori principles, we will create an enriching academic environment and a diverse, nurturing community that allows us to achieve our limitless potential.

It’s all there. First, the statement of our identity, “incorporating Montessori principles” become our “At Tree City School.” There’s the mention of the academic goal, “create an enriching academic environment”. And, of course, the tagline. Only instead of lifelong learners, we are achieving “our limitless potential.”

It is not identical to the theoretical universal statement. The parts that make it different are what demonstrates your individuality.

A vision statement frames what your school looks like when everything is perfect – when all the pieces fall into place. What are we living into? What are we growing toward? It Is meant to be an aspirational statement about where your students, and possibly the faculty and parents as well, hope to be as a result of working together.

It’s there – right down to “our limitless potential.” It gets there starting from our Montessori roots, and passing through academics and our intent to create a nurturing community.

A mission statement, on the other hand, is supposed to move the aspirational into the practical. This can be the “who / what / how” of the work of achieving the vision. While mission statements are often brief narratives in one, usually run-on, sentence, they can also take the form of a list of descriptions of right behavior. Numbered statements are not unheard of in this situation. Either way, it should lay out a specific plan for achieving your vision.

One could suggest that Gamble Montessori fell short in specificity:

We seek to help each other develop as thoughtful, intelligent, inclusive human spirits who contribute to the stewardship of our community and planet.

Not much of a to-do list for achieving our limitless potential.

It is okay, though.

It is okay that our vision statement is imperfect, or indistinguishable from someone else’s.

It is okay that our mission does not fit the definitions provided above, in that it does not describe a list of correct actions to take, or provide a roadmap to helping our students achieve their limitless potential.

One could read books about mission and vision statements and glean volumes of information that would explain the many ways these statements are imperfect. A starter list of those resources is available here. One even promises to help you get your personal statement down to one word!

It is similarly okay that your statement is what it is. You do not, necessarily, have to create it from scratch. What is more important is that you make it yours. In fact, if you already have one, you can likely identify the steps you have taken in the next few paragraphs, and the rest of the advice still applies to you.

To create your mission statement, follow these steps:

  1. Find a way to involve everyone in the process, especially at the beginning and end. This can be done by utilizing contract time when everyone is required to be present, or soliciting volunteers to come outside of contract time. Alternatively, a straightforward questionnaire with two or three questions could offer everyone a say. Include those in leadership positions, such as a leadership council or Board of Regents.
  2. Ask yourselves, why do we do what we do? And, what could it look like if we did it perfectly? These guiding questions, or survey questions, should form the heart of your final statement. You are building a cathedral, after all. Only a stretch goal will force you to stretch.
  3. Find words and phrases that begin to summarize or encapsulate those answers. Do certain words keep coming up? Keep them. Are there specific words that summarize major concepts you heard in the gathering phase? Add them.
  4. Wordsmith it in a small group, focusing on making sure it captures the spirit of your school. Focus on making it shorter, and more comprehensive. Why a small group? Because wordsmithing by committee is a Sisyphean task.
  5. Formally adopt it. We have an Instructional Leadership Team, mandated by our collective bargaining agreement, who is responsible for leading instruction. Your school has some sort of governing group internally, and perhaps externally. Their imprimatur is an important step in this process. This is why you involved them from the start: if they are happy with it, and the staff is happy with it, the rest of the process has a chance to work. If they don’t, you have dragged your staff through a frustrating process to simply spin their wheels.
  6. Live into it.

This last step requires further explanation.

Living into your mission statement seems to contrast with the daily work of teaching. In those moments of grading, correcting student misbehavior, differentiating lessons, or turning in grade summaries to the principal, “our limitless potential” seems a long way away. It is easy to lose sight of the cathedral you’re building at the end of a long day.

It is okay that our vision statement is imperfect, or indistinguishable from someone else’s.

So what is the solution? One key part is to never let them get too far from your consciousness. Put your statements everywhere. Here are some of the ways we incorporate our mission, vision, and other core statements in our daily operations:

  • Just before the greeting at each meeting, we state aloud one of our core statements. In our case, this includes core values, mission statement, vision statement, staff agreement, and our district’s Board policy regarding the education of students with disabilities.
  • Organize your behavioral expectations based on your mission statement or core values. Post them in every common space, including the office, classrooms, halls, and restrooms, our rules are sorted into sections: community, hard work, learning, peace, and respect.
  • Incorporate discussions of your values into disciplinary conversations. Our student reflection sheet asks students, “Which core values were broken?” The student is then prompted to explain how that value was broken. (Interestingly, the frustrated student sometimes goes to great lengths to explain how another student, or even the teacher, violated a core value. That works too!)
  • Just put them everywhere: in your staff manual, on your letterhead, in a student agreement, in the staff agreement, on teacher appreciation mugs, on places yet unmentioned…

There is no drowning in the mission statement, there is only saturation. Every time we call ourselves to be the best we can be, it can serve to inspire us.

Please share your mission statement in the comments.

Lead Change by Changing

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The Barrow sisters arrived at Gamble as a group three years ago, although they were in separate grades. Bright and engaged and outspoken in class, they were nonetheless a task to manage there, and an absolute disruption when together in the hallway. If one of them got upset about a bad grade or an argument with a friend, the three responded as a unit, storming down the hall, feeding into each other’s anger. When any one of them was angry, I saw them collectively as Pig Pen, only instead of a cloud of dust, they hurricaned down the hall in a frenzy of frustration and anger. One morning they had been brought to the office by Mr. Sinden. Well, he got them near the office, anyway. They kept talking themselves out of actually entering – one would say okay, and then another would initiate another complaint and they would collapse again into angry pacing and threats. After twenty long minutes, we settled that matter and returned them to class. One at a time throughout the morning they each ended up at the office again, having been removed from class for misbehavior.

Something was going on. I pulled Alicia, the oldest, into the hallway. “What’s going on?” She started to talk about how her teacher removed her from class for nothing.

“No, what is going ON?” I emphasized the last word to suggest bigger dealings, and pointed out that she and her sisters had separately and collectively been removed from class multiple times, and we still were not at lunch time. “Nothing,” she started. “It’s just that …” She paused, and I waited until she spoke again. When she stopped talking several minutes later, she had revealed that the sisters had been separated the previous night in an effort to find warm places to sleep, and still one of them had ended up in another sister’s house where the electricity was off. They were cold and tired, and glad to be back in each other’s company, until they learned that a friend had made some disgusting allegations about the youngest sister on Facebook. They were eager to settle the score as a group, in person, but were trying to not get in trouble for doing it at school.

Several among my staff expressed frustration that I had not simply sent the girls home on suspension at the first incident. I had cause to suspend them, in a strict reading of the rules. However, if I had done that, I would not have learned about their collective situation. They would have not gotten any instruction for several days, and school would have remained an adversary rather than an opportunity for these students.

I learned a lot that day, and from similar experiences before that. Over time I have learned to look at unusual misbehavior as a sign of larger concerns, as Krista explained in a post that student behavior really reveals hidden issues. I have learned to ascribe charitable explanations to the misbehavior – not as an excuse for the child, but as a way to understand the child. Besides, it never hurts in a relationship with a student to inquire about her life beyond the walls of the school. Simply asking, “Are you alright? Your actions here do not seem like you,” sends a student a message of caring and concern and tells her that you understand her best self, even if she is not feeling like her best self at the moment.

This is significantly better than asking, “What is wrong with you, don’t you know how to behave?”

CPS High School principals created their own Harvard / CPS / Grit logo mashup to mark their training summer 2015.
CPS High School principals created their own Harvard / CPS / Grit logo mashup to mark their training summer 2015.

In the summer of 2015, Cincinnati Public High School Principals participated in the Harvard program “Improving Schools: The Art of Leadership.” http://www.gse.harvard.edu/ppe/program/improving-schools-art-leadership

In the program, we explored many different facets of school leadership, taking classes from some of the leading researchers, teachers, and school leaders in education today. At first I believed the common message was the declared theme of the conference: every child can learn. A passionate argument was made time and again about the power of the leader to send this message about every student, and a recognition that education professionals take every lost student as a personal challenge. I found myself already primed by my experience and my beliefs to fully embrace this message. They were preaching to the choir.

Soon though, I realized a subtle but more powerful message had been intentionally woven through our courses: In order for an organization to change, the leader must change. This “change” was not the simplistic one-size-fits-all “fire the principal of the underperforming school.” (That was, actually, one of the three turnaround models provided by the State of Ohio under the School Improvement Grant, as developed under the No Child Left Behind legislation. Seriously. “Replace the principal” was an entire strategy.) No, in order for an organization to change, the leader must be willing to change himself or herself.

The first giveaway was our introduction to the book Immunity to Change, by Harvard School of Education Professors Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey. Dr. Kegan walked us through the process they developed to identify hidden motivators that undermine our efforts to be our best selves. In the process, you set a particular goal and outline the steps to achieve that goal. Then you examine your behaviors that work against your goal. Finally, you investigate your choices to see what competing commitments you have – what is important to you that prevents you from doing the things that need to be done to reach your goal. Then you take steps to eliminate or disempower those competing commitments. You can see a brief explanation of the process here. This process explained how to take what was hidden in yourself and make it plain. Again, it prepared you to make a change in your organization by making change within yourself.

I was content to see this as a way for working through my habitual procrastination, but nothing more than that. A salve for a problem familiar to many. I stubbornly clung to my belief that I did not really need to change so much as I needed to learn a few good systems. (And I believe a few good systems can truly help!)

Other readings and experiences grew out of the Harvard experience. Soon thereafter I had the pleasure of listening to and then meeting Craig Weber, author of Conversational Capacity. His suggestions for creating teams that could function at a high level – teams that could learn from each other and speak about uncomfortable ideas and resolve problems effectively – involved the same sort of work. The team was not expected to work on a new set of procedures or go through a particular set of stages (that will happen anyway, as you can see here), but instead it was expected that the leader would conduct himself in a way to bring about new conversations. Through his or her efforts guiding the conversation, the team would remain in the conversational sweet spot between what he Weber described as “minimizing” and “winning”. That is, in the zone between wanting to avoid the conversation at all costs, and wanting to get your way and appear right at all costs. He explains that we all lean toward one of those conversational mistakes, and those tendencies work to prevent a team from solving problems.

 

<—– minimize —————(sweet spot)——————–win—–>

 

Fortunately, through the individual’s vigilance and self-discipline, there is a way to intentionally keep the group in the sweet spot, where they are discussing key issues, raising problems, proposing solutions, and working together toward the same goal. It is not a system or a checklist, as much as some would hope for that. There is a time to back off and let a solution happen, and there is a time to push an idea forward.  But these are not “minimizing” or “winning”. These skills can be learned. It is a discipline.

Once again, the message is that as a leader, I must learn how to do this in order to be what the team needs. I recognize in myself the tendencies to minimize. My same skills that help me to be a careful observer of my students also can prevent me from addressing concerns I have with actions taken by a student or a staff member. I often fail to take immediate action on important items. I most likely do this because I want to avoid conflict. As a minimizer, this means I must learn to push myself to be more assertive and to embrace the possibility of conflict in order to accomplish what needs to be done.

Once again, I am being pushed to change the organization by changing myself.

In Conversational Capacity, Craig made reference to something called the “ladder of inference”. I encountered the ladder again in Peter Senge’s Schools That Learn. Peter Senge is the author of the bestselling systems-thinking book The Fifth Discipline. It is a staple in management courses at universities around the world. Schools That Learn is a version of the book specifically geared towards educators and schools.

The ladder of inference, pictured below, is a helpful way to envision any person’s mental processing mistakes about a situation.

The ladder of inference.
The ladder of inference.

Unlike most mental models provided in trainings, this is not a set of steps to take to reach a desired conclusion. It is, more accurately, a guide on how people get things wrong in a personal interaction. It’s an anti-instruction chart. It’s a map of what your mind does whether you want it to or not.

Weber gives this example:

Consider the experience of two men visiting Chicago for the first time. Traveling together to attend a meeting, they land at O’Hare airport and share a taxi into town. Arriving early, they decide to wander the streets together and explore the downtown area. An hour later, as they walk into their meeting, the woman who summoned them to Chicago knowing it’s their first visit, asks them a question, “What did you think of the city?”

“It’s a dump,” exclaims one.

“It’s beautiful,” raves the other.

One question we might ask is, “Who is right?” But that’s not the most interesting line of inquiry.

In any given situation, such as a visit to a new city, there is a lot of directly observable data. Focusing on restaurants means perhaps overlooking the parks, and people-watching could mean attempting to figure out their profession by focusing on their clothing, or noting the cultural and racial diversity, or looking for people who otherwise stand out to you. There is a lot to see. You cannot possibly see it all. So the men in the example started selecting right from the minute they entered the taxi, and continued during their walk.  So they moved from “reality and facts” to “selected reality.”

From the limited observable data they collected, their unique background experiences – their cultural, educational, and experiential backgrounds – filtered what they saw without their knowledge. So they moved from “selected reality” to “interpreted reality.” Without their knowing it, the men had taken the same tour at the same time, and had reached completely different conclusions based on their personal interpretations.

In this case, it was their vocations that helped create their interpretations of what they saw. The first man was a police officer, the second an architect. The first saw a dump, with evidence of crime all over the place based largely on his training and experience. The second saw beautiful architecture in many different styles and eras, and neighborhoods that reflected the eras in which they were built, again based largely on his training and experience.

Our vocational training is one of many powerful filters that comprise our ladders of inference.

Or, as Weber phrases it, the ladder forces us to ask, all the time, “what else is your mind doing without your permission?” This is an important question for educators to ask themselves all the time as we deal with students, parents, and each other.

With the Barrow sisters, it would have been easy to conclude, “Those girls are out of control.” It would have required no work on my part. There would have been general support for the decision. I could see the misbehavior and assume they do not know how to behave, or that they meant ill will toward Mr. Sinden or me. That ladder is an easy one to climb when we see a student not following clear directions from an adult.

Frustratingly, in a school, there is often a perverse sort of pressure on teachers to view students in just this way: as intentional disruptors who do not want to do well in school. This may be my greatest frustration as a principal. In a vocation where we should be trained to support and nurture students, the urge to punish and suspend a student is oddly fostered and encouraged among some teachers. I ask this question: shouldn’t the vocational training of educators take us in the opposite direction? Shouldn’t we always be giving students the benefit of the doubt? The answer is simple.

Yes we should.

And it is intensely frustrating to know that I am at times criticized for doing just that.

A couple of years ago, Cincinnati experienced a particularly cold winter and a stretch of single digit (Fahrenheit) morning temperatures. One of these mornings I was standing next to another adult in the hallway outside the cafeteria when Donte arrived, late, and headed into the cafeteria for breakfast. School had started 15 minutes earlier, and Donte lived within walking distance. He was chronically tardy. He was wearing a zip-up windbreaker over a hoodie which, I saw as I got closer, was pulled on over a second hoodie. My colleague commented aloud on Donte’s tardiness, and implied a conclusion that he was not really trying to get to school. I’ve made similar comments to and about students as well, but today I approached focused on a second set of observations. “Donte, it is super cold out there, are you warm enough?” He shivered his response, “I’m okay Mr. Jose.”

“You must sure love school to get here on a day like this.”

“I do, Mr. Jose.” He reconsidered, “Well, most of it anyway.”

As educators, we must be aware of how we move up the ladder of inference. It is very easy to misjudge another person’s actions, especially as we have more and more interactions with them over time. It is easy to get it wrong, as I did one particular day, when my student suddenly left my class without permission. I was certain that she was intent on skipping, and I rather publicly wrote her a Saturday school discipline form in front of my class. I soon learned that she had run out to help a teacher who had spilled something in the hallway.

Our classrooms have 28 or more students in them, we see 5 classes over the course of the day, we interact with more students and teachers in the hall … how do we possibly manage everyone in a world rife with opportunities to misunderstand? The answer is, we manage ourselves. We have to manage how we collect information, and how we process it, and what we do with it.

In interpersonal interactions, you must guard against climbing your own ladder of inference. One way to do this by always offering the benefit of the doubt. (We even build this last piece of advice into our Staff Agreement.)

Our staff agreement, final draft

How does that work? Practice. You can do it by yourself, and you can do it with a partner. When a student breaks a rule for the umpteenth time, imagine a variety of possible reasons why that just happened. At Gamble, students sometimes come into the office and shout a request to the office staff as soon as they get through the door. I could suggest, as some have, that this reflects “poor home training.” One could just as easily attribute this to an eagerness to return to class, or a lack of experience interacting with adults, or just above-average adolescent ebullience. Practicing the act of imagining charitable explanations for misbehavior opens the door to new understandings for all student behavior.

With the Barrow sisters, my choice helped set them up for success. Each of them has made the honor roll at least once in the intervening two years, and this year, when circumstances turned difficult for their family, they appropriately sought out the school’s support.

So how can you avoid climbing the ladder of inference?

  1. Observe the scene as fully as you can – look at the child or adult and gather facts
  2. Ask questions to get the other person’s perspective, take notes if necessary
  3. Ask what it is the other person was hoping to accomplish with their actions
  4. Fully explain your own perspective, then intentionally ask, “What am I missing?”
  5. Be willing to abandon your first interpretation of the situation

This is not to say that every action has a charitable explanation. It is wrong, however, to start from the assumption that the person you are dealing with intended to do harm.

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.

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.

Good Books: The Checklist Manifesto

-by Jack M. Jose

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It always seemed to happen this way: The parents left the room at the end of the meeting, and walked down the hallway. We resumed our team meeting, addressing the next issue on the agenda. Someone would exclaim, “Rats! Forgot to ask them about the permission slip for the field trip!” And he or she would rush to the door, but the parents were gone.

Or maybe we had forgotten to explain a key upcoming homework assignment, or mention an important project deadline.

This was a chronic experience for each of the teacher teams I was on at Hughes Center. And it turns out that forgetting things is a problem for people in other professions too. I learned a simple and effective solution to this vexing problem in a book about making detailed lists, and following them in order: The Checklist Manifesto.

 

Atul Gawande, a renowned surgeon and author, starts The Checklist Manifesto by differentiating between errors made in the face of great complexity (because we do not know enough), and errors made by ineptitude (because we fail to access or use what we do know). Speaking from his profession as a surgeon, great complexity is a reality of his daily work. We encounter similar complexity as educators – what is the necessary preparation to help a student understand or create an appropriate metaphor, or to know when to solve a problem using the quadratic formula? These are complex, but knowable. As professionals in a particular discipline, we should be expected to have a grasp of the solutions to these intellectual progressions. This is where our expertise is absolutely necessary and irreducible. Checklists cannot necessarily help with this.  Errors of ineptitude or oversight, however, are the kinds of errors that checklists are designed to eliminate. Procedures need to happen in a certain order, and doing them that way creates better outcomes.

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picked up a newer version of The Checklist Manifesto at a book store last year, and saw that it had a new introduction. Though I had read the book years before, I was immediately drawn into the narrative, demonstrating how a checklist was instrumental in helping to safely (and famously) crash land a plane into the Potomac River. More on that later, as I talk more about the book that helped me see the world of my work completely differently. Principals and teachers inhabit a world of tremendous complexity. There are layers of expectations placed on their students, dozens of types of assessments, and countless instructional tools and techniques at their disposal to help their students master the skills necessary for promotion. Within this complexity, there are some processes that repeat somewhat endlessly into the future, processes contained within a single class period, a day, a week, a quarter, a semester and even a year. There are right ways to do many of these regular processes. Checklists are, in this complex environment, a remarkably simple way to make sure we are doing the important things right.

 

Checklists to help with routine events

In 2012, as part of training for principals in Cincinnati Public Schools, a member of the Board of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital spoke about the mistakes made by doctors at the hospital. They had a patient mortality rate of 4.6% in 2001, which had been a very slight improvement on the year before.  This placed them above the middle of the pack for similar hospitals, and had been a point of some pride for earlier leadership. However, they had become dissatisfied with being in the middle of the pack relative to the percentage of children dying in their care. Each number was a tragedy, and there was no excuse for not taking effective measures to prevent them. The Board at Children’s was especially concerned to note that many of these deaths were, in their estimation, preventable. Doctors administering incorrect medicines or doses, doctors and nurses making mistakes that resulted in infections, such as pneumonia acquired while on a ventilator. They instituted a series of reforms which included checklists. At the end of 2011, their mortality rate had been cut dramatically[1].

Gwande provides as an example a different institution, Johns Hopkins hospital, where checklists were instituted for a specific common ventilator procedure. In addition to a clear set of steps posted where all could see them, nurses were given the unusual authority to stop the procedure if a step was missed. Prior to the implementation of the checklist, secondary infections had been the leading cause of complications and deaths at one of the world’s most prestigious medical facilities. This simple addition nearly eliminated those infections.

Checklists are, in this complex environment, a remarkably simple way to make sure we are doing the important things right.

So checklists can help eliminate mistakes as we repeatedly complete important procedures. An example of an academic use for routines is the weekly checklist in the structured classroom. In a typical classroom, a child might receive one or two assignments each day, with varying due dates. Assignments may even be dispensed one at a time. However, a checklist is an important tool in helping a child develop skills related to managing time and work. The Montessori weekly checklist enumerates planned lessons and activities, such as regular reading time for students to encounter challenging and engaging material, teacher-led mini-lessons to provide new content, and shelfwork to help each student develop existing skills. The checklist format aids the student in utilizing her time wisely to complete the necessary work. Powerfully, the checklist in this case serves the “patient” and the “doctor” equally, as utilizing the format from week to week ensures that the necessary modes of instruction are regularly used, instead of a teacher falling back on a favorite or comfortable routine or lesson format.

 

 

Checklists to help with infrequent events

The popular rock band Van Halen’s live performances included massive amplifiers, fireworks, lights, and electric and audio cables spread across entire stadiums. Their shows were memorable, but their demands as a band were legendary and one was individually ridiculous: they demanded M&Ms at every show, with all the brown ones picked out. Their manager explained to Dr. Gawande that it was not because they were pampered celebrities with an aversion to brown candies. Instead, their demanding checklist was created to make sure that the performers and fans were safe on stage every night. There was a lot that could go wrong, especially as the lead singer was hoisted in a harness for a spectacular entry, and fans stood near scaffolding holding massive audio equipment – and did I mention fireworks, water, and electricity? The tour double-checked everything the day they arrived; if there were brown M&Ms in the bowl, they would know that the venue did not pay attention to the details. It was not a frivolous demand; it was a fail-safe to ensure that no one’s safety was at risk.

So checklists can help make sure that an infrequent or even one-time event, such as a Van Halen show in your local arena, happens flawlessly.

I explained earlier that Gawande said checklists could help with errors of ineptitude or oversight, where someone makes a mistake in carrying out a familiar procedure. This is the team meeting problem. We would enter a conversation with a specific objective, and the intention to cover one or two items in particular, such as poor grades, or a particular disciplinary incident. The conversation would address the big issue, and the parent might bring up new and important information. We would wander off-task, fully engaged in the new direction of the conversation. These can be contentious meetings, full of hurt feelings and embarrassment for students and adults alike. It is understandable that everyone involved might forget other, less significant topics momentarily. Perhaps we missed a signature on a permission slip for an upcoming trip, or we failed to make sure the family could access the online gradebook.

Inspired by this book, and motivated by our repeated experience, we created a team meeting checklist. We made a simple list on the bottom of the page, charting the things we might need to cover in a conference. We used our old meeting form with this small addition and we found that we forgot less, and accomplished more, than we had before just by assigning one person to run through the checklist at the end of the meeting, to ensure we hit each topic.

This checklisted sequence of questions works to prevent anger and withdrawal just like a correct sequence of events in a hospital helps to prevent infection.

Okay, so maybe conferences are not life-and-death situations on the surface. And they definitely are not rock-n-roll concerts. However, they can be important moments in a child’s education, and key pivot points in the relationship between a family and the school. Getting things right in the conference – covering the important issues fully, addressing critical needs, and valuing the family’s time – is an important part of building trust and making sure that the student’s needs are met. There are a finite number of things that can potentially be covered in a conference, which have a seemingly infinite number of permutations. A checklist like the one here is an investment in the golden triangle – the relationship between the student, teacher, and parent.

 

Checklists to help in moments of conflict or crisis

Pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger will be the first to tell you that he finds it odd to be famous as a pilot because he crashed a plane. As his passenger jet lifted off from LaGuardia airport in 2009, it struck a flock of geese, causing damage to both jet engines. There could have been dozens of causes. The airline industry, which has an understandable focus on safety, has used checklists for years, and they had one for just this situation. Sully and his copilot were able to speed twice through this troubleshooting checklist before deciding they needed to look for the safest possible place to land a plane in Manhattan. He chose the Hudson River, and there were – famously – no deaths. He attributes his clear thinking to his familiarity with the checklist. The process for eliminating all possible causes reduced his panic and allowed him the time to find the best place to crash land.

Checklists can not only be used to make sure that the necessary steps all happen in a moment of high tension or anxiety, they can also work to make sure that steps happen in the correct order. At Gamble Montessori high school, we realized that when students returned from suspension, that they felt dislocated from the school – out of touch with what they had missed in class, and still feeling as if their teachers distrusted or disliked them because of the incident. So we instituted a return conference checklist, which we explain in more detail in our post Welcome Back. We had learned from experience that these steps had to happen in a certain order. Too often, these conferences after an incident immediately start with a description from someone at the school of what happened. The student often would react one of two ways: they would either dispute the details of what was being said, or they would sit in silence and mentally remove themselves from the conference. We know that a student in this mindset will not be a partner in problem-solving for the future. So we turned the old, ineffective conference model on its head. Our checklist starts with a non-negotiable step where every adult at the table offers a strength that they see in the child. Only later in the conference is there a brief description of the incident followed not with accusations and a re-hashing of the event, but with everyone involved being asked to partner in helping the student be successful moving forward.

This checklisted sequence of questions works to prevent anger and withdrawal just like a correct sequence of events in a hospital helps to prevent infection. The student, having been welcomed back with a shared awareness and acknowledgement of his strengths, gets to become a partner in problem-solving how to help himself be successful moving forward. The intentional sequence of events works to help students return to school ready to learn.

Ordered checklists, simple lists of routines and important processes, are tremendously useful in many professional situations, including education. Whether in routine events, infrequent occurrences, or moments of conflict, having a list of the correct sequence of steps to try can help make sure we reach the best possible outcome for all involved.

Perhaps there are processes for which you already use effective checklists, or there are processes at your school that need to be “checklisted.”

We would love to hear your ideas in the comments below.

[1] “Newsroom.” Cincinnati Children’s Earns National Award for Patient Safety. Jim Feuer, n.d. Web. 30 July 2016.