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Empathy & Collaboration: The Not So Secret Approach Behind Riverside, One of the Best Schools in India

Empathy & Collaboration: The Not So Secret Approach Behind Riverside, One of the Best Schools in India

The first thing we noticed about The Riverside School was the space itself. There’s a large open area with offices on one side and long flat steps leading to a multi-purpose space on the other. There are open staircases and curved walls. This is a school that is so fiercely dedicated to the ideas of student voice and collaboration that even the school’s architecture has been designed around them. There is a circular well with seats descending into the ground. A ‘giant seven’ bench works as a surprisingly perfect collaboration space. A stand-alone circular brick room with large windows is used for class meetings and discussions. Students and adults traverse the space with comfort and purpose. Everyone here seems to feel like they are home.

Along the edges of the open area, there are boards that celebrate the school’s history and accomplishments. Riverside is consistently ranked in the top 5 schools in India, and its various national and international recognitions are too numerous to mention. Pictures show that Barack Obama and Bill Clinton are just two of the many prominent people who have recognized its successes. The founder Kiran launched the school to even greater international fame with a TED talk she delivered in 2009. The day we visited, we met a group of educators from Hong Kong who had spent the past week at Riverside generally having their minds blown by what they were seeing at the school.

Riverside School meeting with Kiran

The founder, Kiran, leading a class discussion

After we were settled and offered coffee, a pair of 5th graders, named Adi and Sraj, took us on a tour of the campus. We peppered them with questions, and they answered them with confidence and poise. They explained that they liked Riverside because they got to experience what they were learning, “At other schools,” said Adi, “they are only like ‘read this or read that,’ but here they make us feel what happens. Like if they are learning about pollution, they just read books about how much garbage there is. But us, they will make us go to the places where pollution is happening and see.” Sraj chimed in, “Here we have experiences. We go everywhere.”

I asked them what they thought the most important thing they learned from Riverside was. Adi didn’t hesitate, “To be together.” “I think I’ve learned how to work as a team. How to collaborate,” said Sraj.

riverside school giant 7

Elizabeth with Adi and Sraj in the ‘Giant 7’

This sense of community also made an impression on the team from Hong Kong. They explained that back home, there is a very competitive academic culture where everyone is focused on their individual scores. By contrast, Riverside doesn’t even give quantitative marks until 8th grade. There is feedback, but it’s personalized and not comparative. As one teacher explained, “We are not competing with each other. We are completing each other.”

This idea of growing as individuals through being part of a strong community is reinforced through reflection from the earliest years. Even in Kindergarten, students will sit with their classmates and reflect, one at a time, on what values they best exemplify and why. Each student has a strength selected for them from the class values: polite, caring, helpful, or responsible. Personal and group refection is woven into everything that students do at Riverside. A high school student who approached me said that he liked the school because there was more of an emphasis on being a ‘citizen leader’ than an ‘academic leader.’

riverside school students

At Riverside, students can be seen collaborating everywhere.

There is also a strong emphasis on empathy. Students have gone a day without food, had limbs tied down, rolled incense sticks, and gone through a variety of other experiences to better empathize* with the plight of other people in India. Perhaps most dramatic is a tradition upperclassmen go through just before exams. While the rest of the students in the country are focused on cramming for the most important tests of their lives, Riverside students are told to take a few days to look inward and get perspective on the world. They spend a day with ‘bag pickers’ salvaging recyclables from trash heaps, and time meditating, and they generally try to put their lives and exams in a greater context.

Riverside’s approach does a lot to build intrinsic motivation and investment but it is not a complete antidote to teenage pastimes like procrastination. I was grounded by a scene I saw in a physics classroom**. A girl student was on the defensive. She was explaining, with a bit of frustration, that she wasn’t ready with her project because she hadn’t been able to contact her partner. She detailed the ways she had reached out. The teacher then looked to the boy the girl had mentioned. “Is that true?” asked the teacher. The boy admitted it was and explained that he wasn’t by his phone. “Do you really think that excuse is going to work, when you had over a week?” The scene went on like this for a couple of minutes, the rest of the class in awkward silence. The teacher laid out the ways he could have been more proactive. She was upset, but it wasn’t just because he was unprepared, it was because he had failed to live up to the freedom and responsibility he had been given.

So, there’s a no nonsense undertone that anchors the empathy, collaboration and reflection work that Riverside does. The no nonsense attitude is necessary, but it exists in a context of responsibility rather than compliance. It’s certainly not the main reason Riverside consistently outperforms the best schools in the country on the national exams. Riverside’s main insight is proving that when you focus on character and community, academics tend to follow.

  • Will

*The empathy in these experiences is not an end in itself but rather the first step in the Design Thinking model that informs much of what Riverside does. Students end up actually doing something about these issues. We’ll write more about that later, but you can get a glimpse of it in Kiran’s TED Talk.

** I was walking around unchaperoned. The Riverside administration literally told us to walk into whatever classrooms we wanted. It was the first time that’s happened to us on a school visit.

Quotes from the boards around campus:

Riverside School quote 2

Riverside School quote 3

Riverside School quote 4

Riverside school quote 1

What Teach For America Can Learn From Teach For India

What Teach For America Can Learn From Teach For India

When we walked into the Teach For India office, Elizabeth and I almost felt like we were home. We were introduced as Teach For America alums and former staff members, and the TFI staff greeted us like old friends who were eager to catch up. We didn’t know these people, but we felt connected by a common passion and set of values.

Over the next several days, we couldn’t avoid comparing what we were seeing with the organization where we’ve spent much of the past 10 years. We knew that TFI had borrowed a lot from TFA, but we were eager to explore the ways TFI had charted its own course. We wanted to know what TFA might be able to learn from its sister organization on the other side of the globe.

Several things stood out to us, but the one that made the biggest impression was TFI’s institutional commitment to student voice. We first noticed it when Sanaya was explaining how the Maya program (which we wrote about here) came about. TFI staff kept pushing their teachers to go beyond basic academics with their students. They urged them to focus on values as well and to help students develop leadership skills. The teachers agreed that these things were important, but they didn’t know how to translate this advice into action. Teach For India realized that they didn’t have a clear idea of what their advice meant either. So they decided to have a staff member create a program for students to figure out what this could look like. It worked. Maya has been successful and every TFI teacher I asked about it has spoken about how inspiring it is. Now TFI is trying to add a staff position dedicated to student voice in each of their regions. That’s a TFI staff member whose only role is to work with students to provide a model for teachers on what values based leadership programs can look like.

The next time we noticed how serious TFI is about student voice was when they invited us to participate at their Education Innovation Weekend. The three day conference led teams of staff members and teachers through a Design Thinking sequence to develop ideas to improve education in Pune, India. Each team also included one secondary school student, and their perspective was taken very seriously. Often the student voice ended up being the most influential at the table.

The adults in my group were having a heated debate about why most children didn’t enroll in secondary school. Eventually we calmed down and asked the student with us why many of her friends didn’t go to school. She told us matter-of-factly that it was because their parents would rather they find a job and earn some money. Later on, a girl from another group added a layer of nuance by explaining that parents didn’t respect the quality of the education offered at the government schools. The confidence in their assessments grounded us. These two comments became the foundation for the proposal we eventually submitted.

Individuals at Teach For America are passionate about student voice as well. This is something people can get quite emotional about. But at TFA, there is hardly ever the institutional commitment to student voice that we saw at TFI. There are no staff positions dedicated to student voice. Staff members rarely, if ever, work directly with students.

Students are common at Teach For America events. If the event is at their school, they might help with setup or with registering people as they arrive. If it’s a larger conference, there will certainly be some kind of performance by students. This type of involvement can be a valuable experience for students, but it is also scripted. I have never seen students given the opportunity to be active, unscripted participants at a TFA event. I can only imagine that, if they were, their voices would prove just as valuable to the dialogue as they did here in India.

TFA knows student voice is important and they try to prioritize it by providing professional development to teachers about why it’s important. TFI realized that this alone isn’t enough. Perhaps it’s time TFA does too.

  • Will

For the record, I in no way mean this as a ‘criticism’ of TFA. I’m offering these observations with an understanding that TFA is an organization that’s deeply committed to continuous improvement and always eager to hear new ideas.

Students Are Not Rational Beings, They’re Emotional Ones

Students Are Not Rational Beings, They’re Emotional Ones

A young girl speaks up first: “Before Maya I wasn’t confident in how I talk with people and I wasn’t sure what my life would be like in the future. But Maya has given me the chance to say ‘Yes, there are lots of things to do in life.’” The kids around her nod and smile. All of the children in the circle are between 11 and 15 years old, and they all come from very low-income communities in Pune, India. In 2014 they were part of an original musical called ‘Maya’ that they performed for over 10,000 people across India.

Another student speaks up, “What Maya was for me, it was a platform for us kids to figure out, ‘what is our light,’ and what is our potential, and how can we use it in different ways, to help other kids or spread the knowledge that we have… I have grown in Maya. My confidence has increased. Now I can talk to people with more confidence…” Most educators would be glowing with pride if their students spoke like this, but Sanaya, the facilitator, has heard this all before and she doesn’t seem impressed. She cuts into the dialogue, “OK, I’m going to push you a little more. All of your confidence has increased. None of you spoke earlier, all of you speak now. What else?” A murmur of giggles rises in the circle and Sanaya looks up to Elizabeth and I, “At the beginning, they didn’t speak more than a few words of English. They were quite shy. They didn’t have opinions and if they did, they were afraid to voice them.” She looks back to the students, “OK, beyond that?”

Teach for india maya

The students don’t miss a beat. A young boy speaks up, “If we don’t know something, we used to leave it. We used to not ask about it. But after Maya, we learned to ask ‘Why?’ If we’ve been taught something we ask, ‘Why does this happen?’ or ‘What is the reason behind this?’ The reasoning skills that we have, have increased.”

Another girl chimes in, “I’m more aware of the things that I want to do in my life and the things that I did wrong. Maybe I’m a little confused about things, and about what’s happening in my life, or around me. But I’ve started thinking more about what’s going on around me. I’ve started to become more wise. Now I ask, ‘What is the right thing to do?’”

Maya is a program of Teach For India, an organization similar to, but distinctly different from, Teach For America. Maya came about because TFI kept telling their adult fellows that they should focus on values and expose students to experiences in addition to academics. The trouble was that they didn’t have any real examples of what this meant. TFI decided to start a program dedicated to values development and student voice. At about this time, there was a fortuitous introduction to someone connected to Tony Award winning talent from Broadway. The arts seemed like a good place to start and the idea for Maya began to form.

The results are unquestionable. Not only did the students eventually perform an original and elaborate musical (about Maya, a princess who fights to bring light back to her kingdom and, in the process, finds the light inside herself) but their academic test scores ended up over 50% higher than other TFI students across the country. Maya did have a minor academic component where they would break down vocabulary and discuss the musical’s script as a text. But there wasn’t nearly enough time dedicated to this type of discussion to account for a 50% difference in test scores.

Maya teach for india values

The students in Maya talk about the group as a family. They highlight the importance of trust and the fact that their individual voices are valued. It turns out that when young people feel part of a positive peer community like this, it has an immeasurably powerful effect that ripples through every other part of their lives.

Too often we treat children like they are rational systems. We have a goal for them, like academic success, and we push them toward it in a narrow and prescriptive fashion. We want them to be motivated because it makes sense for them to be motivated. But children are not rational beings. They are emotional beings. To find the fire of self-motivation they need emotional experiences. Some students can find this emotion inwardly and nurse their motivation in isolation. But the vast majority of young people need programs like Maya to set the spark that will help them find their ‘light.’

  • Will
Responsibility is More than Compliance: Another Lesson from Switzerland

Responsibility is More than Compliance: Another Lesson from Switzerland

 “You should ask them about their apprenticeships” suggested Melissa, the dynamic English teacher who had let us take over her classroom for the period. We had been asking the Swiss students our usual questions. With some shyness, they had just shared that, if they could change anything about their school they would have less homework.

“What type of apprenticeships will you have next year?” we asked. One student, sitting up straighter than before, said he wanted to be a businessman and would be apprenticing at a bank three days a week. The other two days, he would take classes in English, German, and economics. “And how much will you earn?” asked Melissa. We had no idea the apprenticeships were paid. “800 euros per month for the first year,” the student replied with a smile, “but I don’t know how much for the second and third years.”

Other students in the class proceeded to tell us about their apprenticeships. One student will apprentice with city government, another in computer science, many in business. All spoke with confidence and excitement about this next stage of their lives.

There is a marked difference between the type of responsibility expected of students in Switzerland and the United States. In the US, we often mistake compliance for responsibility. Students act “responsibly” when they decide to follow directions – getting to class on time, cleaning up after themselves, doing their homework, etc. While complying with rules does build good habits (rules are there for a reason), it does not actually transition our young people into adult decision making.

desk at school in switzerland

Swiss schools, in contrast, give students responsibilities in preparation for adulthood. They are required to make judgments that will affect not only their present classwork, but their future jobs and economic stability. This seems intimidating, but it’s not if responsibility is released gradually. At The Ruggenacher School, teachers and administrators ready students for the transition to apprenticeship by requiring them to manage 7-8 hours of independent work time each week and plan their own large-scale social events. When students falter, grown-ups provide support. Students are trusted – not only with their behavior, but with preparing for their life paths. This builds confidence, empowerment, and investment in school. It communicates to students that they are about to become contributing members of society and they are trusted to learn, and be strong, and do the right thing.

We also visited Gymnasium Unterstrasse. At this school, most students are preparing for university rather than apprenticeship. Even so, teachers and administrators trust them to make real life judgments. Students plan and attend a week-long ski retreat every year without any adult supervision. “Aren’t you afraid something will happen?” we asked the headmaster.

Swiss School 02

He said there is always the risk of an accident, but students have been trained to know what to do. Every four years the adults at the school turn the building over to the students and allow them to run the entire school for three days – including all teaching, administrative tasks, and building management. It has always gone well.

At both schools, teachers and administrators prepare students for their responsibilities. Ruggenacher provides students with apprenticeship application support. They have a special program to prepare students who are not yet fluent in German or are weak in math. At Unterstrasse students receive specific training in the jobs they perform when adults are not present. This gives students confidence that they can handle the responsibilities they are given.

It’s a common teenage-ism in the US to be waiting for real life to begin, to be itching for the real world. Schools have the opportunity to induct students into the “real world” and adulthood earlier, and more gradually, building investment in the lessons they learn today because those lessons will come into swift practice tomorrow. While many of our thirteen year olds are still required to walk in line to lunch, Swiss students of the same age are planning their careers. It is hard to let go of control, especially in today’s climate of high stakes testing. But gradually trust students with more, and we may be surprised at the investment, empowerment, and adult-teenager relationships that develop.

 

Charity v. Solidarity: Creating a Community School in Rural Malawi

Charity v. Solidarity: Creating a Community School in Rural Malawi

One of the first things ‘Love Support Unite’ did when they began working with the school in Mkunku village, Malawi was to create a women’s group. They had noticed that women didn’t speak up in the larger community meetings so, they wanted to create a space where women could share their thoughts and experiences. Here women could support one another and speak freely about taboo topics such as sexual abuse and their role in the community.

After the women’s group was established, the organizers at Love Support Unite noticed that women began to speak up more in the larger community meetings. At one meeting, there was talk about new construction related to the school. The male leaders declared that the women would carry the water necessary to make the bricks. In the past, this sort of direction went unchallenged. But on this day, the women spoke up. They said that only some women would carry the water and stipulated that they would not do so during the hottest hours in the middle of the day. The men would need to adjust their schedules around what the women were willing to do.

I love this story. It’s a story of women standing up for themselves in a community where their voices have not been historically valued. But it’s also a story of how outsiders can believe deeply in the importance of local self-determination without sacrificing their own commitment to cross-cultural rights like women’s empowerment.

We met with Lara, the co-founder of LSU, at a small table in the eating area of our hostel. She wore a purple t-shirt and spoke with passion about LSU’s approach to their work, “The village will say, ‘We need desks for the school, can you give us desks?’ And we have to remind them that we don’t give away resources. That’s not the type of work that we do.” This frustration with the historical approach to aid in Africa was echoed by another non-profit director we met. She said, “It’s difficult to teach people to grow their own food when, the next week, UNICEF or Feed the Children might show up and say, ‘Don’t worry about growing your own food. Here’s a check, go buy some.’”

School in Malawi

The type of work LSU does has less to do with resources and more to do with sharing technical knowledge and facilitating conversations. They bring in volunteers from England, but the community always does the vast majority of the work to keep the projects growing. Their greatest contribution seems to be expanding the community’s idea of what’s possible.

Of course, all of this work is centered around the new village school. Mkunku is operating in a context where they can’t expect anything from the government. This reality has forced the community to come together to problem solve a variety of challenges. The result is a school that’s remarkable in many ways. 1) The community built it, literally from dirt and water. 2) They are beginning to grow food to feed the students and the teachers. 3) They want to grow excess food to sell to be able to pay the teachers. 4) They are starting small businesses such as, a solar powered phone charging station and barber shop to further finance teachers and the school as a whole. 5) There are no desks, and that’s ok for now. Active engagement has a far more powerful effect on a school than material resources.

I find Mkunku a remarkable story. It’s a story that’s left me pondering the power of a community to find solutions when the possibility of resources from the government is written off completely. It has me thinking more deeply about what it means for a school to be part of a community, or more specifically, how a community can be part of its school.

  • Will

Photo Credit: Emma Scarborough

The Obvious Need for Structured Social Spaces

The Obvious Need for Structured Social Spaces

We sat down with Hillary and Jody over lunch to talk about the Social Club they organize for students at the middle school in their community. We left quite impressed. Hillary is an alum of the program but neither of them have any kind of formal education training. They haven’t read a lot of youth development literature. They didn’t use the phrase ‘social-emotional learning.’ But they grew up in this community and they know that the children here need more than the content knowledge they get in school. They need a place, “to talk about their lives and the issues in their community.” What’s the goal of Social Club? Hillary hesitates and then raises her hands from the table, “I want them to change their idea about what is possible in the world.”

To arrive at the school, we had to drive through nearly the entire community. The streets are unmarked and the road is crumbling at the edges. There are many wooden shacks, but nearly as many larger brick homes, and an occasional two story house. Children walk and play in the street and adults cluster at the corners. In America we would describe the people here as black, but most of them identify as ‘colored’ – what Americans would call ‘light-skinned’ or ‘mixed.’ This was a distinction codified by apartheid and is still very real in South Africa. The first language in Kurland is afrikaans.

kurland south africa

Hillary asked us if we’d like to run Social Club for a day, and we happily agreed. The room the Social Club meets in has a number of posters that were clearly created by their previous activities.

We showed up to find a dozen children already circled up, about to play a round of ‘two truths and a lie.’ They laughed as we went around and Elizabeth and I were again reminded that children are pretty much the same wherever you go.

social-emotional learning

social-emotional learning

We planned a theater based activity inspired from my time with The Possibility Project. We would ask the students to identify some challenges/issues effecting their community and then talk about what was good in their community. After we had the lists the children would form groups and create ‘mini-plays’ inspired from their lives to perform for each other. I was nervous about the activity for several reasons. These kids were younger than the teens I normally did this with. Also, they didn’t know us and I was afraid they’d be too shy. How much experience did they have with acting? Creating, casting, and rehearsing a narrative arc in 30 minutes is a lot. What if they weren’t able to pull it off?

It turns out these fears were entirely unfounded. The all had experience with acting at some point and they were not shy about listing the issues effecting their community: drugs, violence, robbery, HIV. On the positive side they put: church, school, Social Club, friends and family. We got silly with some wiggle warm-ups and then they jumped into the scene creation with unbridled enthusiasm. We had stressed that these mini-plays were entirely theirs to create and they took this license very seriously. Several times, I approached a group to offer support and was shooed away because they were in the midst of a focused discussion or rehearsal. They got very creative very fast.

social-emotional learning

The first scene was about a boy who turned his younger brother on to drugs. They were visited by a friend who talked about how much they could achieve in life and that doing drugs would get them nowhere. They ended up at church giving their hearts to Jesus. Afterward, Hillary said that this exact thing had happened to someone at her church.

The next group performed a scene where a child was sent by her father to buy beer. On the way, she ran into a friend who said her father shouldn’t be drinking, he should be visiting his mother who was dying of TB. The seen ended with her father asking his mother’s forgiveness for forgetting her and wasting his life with beer. Hillary was especially struck by this scene because sick people in the community are often ignored. Apparently the children have noticed this and don’t think it’s OK.

The final scene was the most dramatic. A sister poisoned her brother out of jealousy, realized the error of her ways, and then prayed for forgiveness. Forgiveness appeared to be a theme throughout.

social-emotional learning

In our last education post I wrote about how poverty is not the fundamental issue with education, like many make it out to be. But I also mentioned that the effects of poverty are real and can’t be ignored. Children who grow up in poverty are more likely to experience trauma than their more privileged peers. Too often these traumas are responded to with a sense of pity and lowered expectations, ‘He can’t be expected to do this, do you know what he’s been through?’ But Social Club takes a different route. Social Club gives the children a place to share and process these traumas peer-to-peer while holding steadfast to the idea that they can achieve great things in the world. Hillary and Jody don’t think of it like this though. They just know it’s what their children need.

  • Will

For more on the importance and power of social-emotional programs check out our piece on The Possibility Project here. Or peruse our in-depth interview with that program’s founder, Paul Griffin. He’s really sharp.

Mindsets, Expectations, and Classroom Culture

Mindsets, Expectations, and Classroom Culture

I arrived at Liceo Domingo Santa Maria unannounced and was greeted with a sort of excited confusion. After explaining myself to several administrators around the enormous Pre-K–12 campus, I ended up in a high school English classroom. The room was noisy. Most of the 30+ students chatted casually with unmarked worksheets in front of them. Occasionally the teacher would step out from behind his desk, pace impatiently, and then speak over the chatter to remind the students that this work was important, and they should be taking it seriously.

I spent most of my time talking with a group of boys by the windows who were wearing straight brimmed baseball caps. They asked me about music and said that they liked American rap music, especially Wiz Khalifa. When I said I was more interested in Chilean music, they smiled and made me a list of bands to listen to. I asked them if students at the school were always like ‘this’ and gestured to the chatter around us. They laughed and explained that students pay more attention in classes that they like but that no one likes English. I turned the conversation to their blank worksheets (they were supposed to be describing pictures of people’s faces) and I discovered that they all had several pages worth of English vocabulary copied into their notebooks. I realized, at some point, this class must have been quietly and diligently copying these notes from the board. Having students silently copy notes is a favorite management strategy of teachers in working-class schools. It brings order, but unfortunately, not much thinking.

International Education School Facilities

Liceo Domingo Santa Maria is a large school with nice facilities

Around the room, a handful of students seemed torn between the noise around them and the confusion of their worksheets. They ended up staring blankly forward, pillars of stoicism in a loudly social scene.

When class ended I walked up to the teacher, Javier, who was obviously embarrassed by his class. The first thing he said to me was, “These kids, you wouldn’t believe the problems they deal with at home. Drugs, violence, hunger…”

International Education enrollment sign

An advertisement for the school’s special program for students with speech problems

Javier got me a sandwich and a coffee from the school cafeteria, and we talked for the better part of an hour. He’s a 10-year veteran teacher and he explained that he enjoys it because it makes him be creative and keeps him sharp. When I asked about obstacles, he mentioned the focus on standardized tests and the amount of time it takes to design lessons, “There’s no time to create activities and so you have to do it at home and then you spend this time working at home but the students don’t care. Neither the students nor the bosses care about the teacher’s well-being. It’s run like a business. It’s all about results.”

Javier told me that the test scores in Arica are the lowest in the country and hypothesized that part of the reason could be that a large percentage of the population has been exposed to unhealthy levels of lead. He lamented how frustrating it is when students don’t pay attention and again connected it to their home lives, which he described as ‘heart-breaking.’

Education - Teacher with paperwork

Javier working on paperwork. Paperwork is so onerous, the school offers bonuses for having it completed.

During our conversation three things became very clear to me:

1) Javier works very hard over long hours,

2) He is emotionally invested in his students, and

3) He is not a very effective teacher.

And this is an important point to realize about education: many ineffective teachers’ work and care just as much as effective teachers. A teachers’ effectiveness is less a function of how much they work or care and more a function of what they believe their students are capable of achieving. Javier expressed what in the U.S. we would call a ‘deficit-based mindset.’ For him, the barriers his students face outside of school predicts a negative attitude toward school. The difficulties in their lives eclipse any more ambitious vision of what they could be capable of. As Lisa Delpit (amongst others) has pointed out, this kind of mindset is attractive because it frees the teacher of responsibility for their students’ learning.

Of course, the stresses Javier faces are severely exacerbated by the fact that he has more work to do than hours to do it in. Remember, Chile and the U.S. require teachers to spend more time in front of students than any other country in the world. And at least in the U.S. we have computers to help with paperwork.

After our conversation, I walked around the campus glancing into windows. I saw a wide variety of student engagement. A room of nearly 40 students was transfixed on a teacher who paced and smiled while tossing an apple into the air. Another class quietly copied notes from a PowerPoint.

Students in math class - international education

Students in math class

I ended up in a math classroom. There was no lesson, students were to get straight to work on their packet. I stepped into a familiar role, floating and trying to help students with math. But, while my Spanish is good, I often had difficulty decoding what the questions were looking for. After a short spurt of effort, I would give up and suggest we work on a problem that was more pure algebra. It gave me an experiential glimpse into what it’s like to struggle with text heavy problems.

In this class, students were more attentive to their worksheets, but there was still a lot of confusion, and they worked very slowly. After about 20 minutes, I realized I should be going.

One of my guiding principles for this trip is to avoid comparison: to let each place be what it is. But I can’t shake the similarities between Liceo Domingo Santa Maria and many large working-class schools I’ve been to in the United States. In the absence of a strong school culture, teachers end up creating unique cultures within the walls of their classrooms. The quality of these cultures nearly always a product of the disparate expectations they have of their students. The result is a wide, wide difference in how students behave and engage each hour of their day.

It’s interesting… I didn’t know what to expect from schools in Latin America. Still, I guess I assumed that there would be some clear difference in quality compared to working-class schools in the United States. But so far, that’s not what I’m finding at all.

Will

Interview: Paul Griffin of The Possibility Project

Interview: Paul Griffin of The Possibility Project

I met up with Paul Griffin at The Possibility Project’s on West 27th St in New York City. What followed was the most interesting conversation I’ve had about education and youth development in a long time. Paul’s tone is animated and energetic and it’s not difficult to see that he once felt called to pursue his own career in the theater.

But something about pursuing his own career felt off to him. It seemed decidedly self-interested and he wanted something more. In the early 90s he began working with youth in Washington DC. He worked with them to use the performing arts as a way to explore the issues impacting their communities. At first, he didn’t think that he would do this type of work for very long, but he soon realized that the work combined everything he loves to do. Over 20 years later, I asked Paul what keeps him going.

Why do you think you continue with this type of work? Where do you get your energy?

That’s a good question. There are a lot of answers to that. If it were one thing, I probably wouldn’t continue to do it. I think that the thing that keeps me going is that it works, seeing the impact that we make. There’s no greater satisfaction than watching one of our young people, seeing the light bulb go off, and them getting with it and getting out there in the world and being confident. It’s just an exciting process. It’s an exciting process to watch, really satisfying. I think also, just the idea that I never had a moment in my life, in 21 years, where I ever asked myself if what I was doing is important. I’ve never asked myself whether it was making a difference or if I was making a difference. I never ask myself, ‘should I be doing this?’ On just a purely instinctive or intuitive level, from the moment we started, it’s just kind of been that way.

What’s unique about The Possibility Project?

I think it’s a combination of things. Every time we do a show or often when we do a show, someone always says, ‘Who thought of this thing?’ A friend of mine who was Chair of the Sarah Lawrence theater department, he brought me up there to teach, he’s in his sixties, and he came to see a show. He said, ‘you know, I thought I had seen every kind of theater in the world.’ He’s been all over the world, he’s directed everywhere and when he saw the show he said, ‘I realized this is a different kind of theater.’

I think the thing that makes us unique, more than anything else, is the youth leadership and youth empowerment pieces of what we do. They lead the program. They’re not the directors of the program, that’s just not feasible with them being in school and work and all of that. But it’s the fact that the production teams act like a board of directors for the program. The fact that they write their own scripts. The fact that they share their stories and then write their scripts from that. The fact that they do their own community action projects. The amount of responsibility they’re given, I think, is totally different.

One of the things we realized early on is that young people need to solve young people problems.

When young people walk into The Possibility Project, they recognize very quickly, ‘oh, this is our house. This is not like a bunch of adults telling us what to do. We get to do this.’ The peer-to-peer relationships are huge. I think that’s the most important thing we do.

We always say in our program, when we’re training Artistic Directors, remember the action in the program is not from you to the young people, it’s amongst the young people themselves. Your measure of success is not whether you have great relationships with them, it’s whether they have great relationships with one another. So, if you walk out at the end of the year and they respect you, and love you and all of that, which they will, they’ll look up to you if you’ve done a good job. If they forget about you two or three years down the road or you kind of fade but, they hang on to relationships they built, that’s ok.

Most people try to manage groups to a result and what we’re saying is, we’re not going to manage you. We’ll organize, we’ll give you this, we’ll help but, you have to do it. They have to do all the work. I think that’s the single biggest difference, and I think that’s why this is very risky and why it works.

What type of program is this anyway? Is it a youth development program? Theater program? Social justice program?

Yeah, youth development social change, combining those two, and the performing arts are the vehicle. That’s how I think of it. And I think the ultimate goal on the youth development side is confidence and on the social justice side, is around leadership and agency. It’s combining those two things, it’s saying, if we’re going to have a better world, we need young people to be on point. They need to be aware, they need to be educated and they need to, over decades, be studying these things so that when their turn comes, they’re prepared for it and know which direction they want to go to.

One of the things we realized early on is that young people need to solve young people problems. They have to rally around, they have to raise their voices. They need to be empowered, challenged, supported, inspired, motivated, to address all the problems of their community.

I think engaging in social justice accelerates the youth development process. It suddenly brings importance and relevance to their development, and then I would also argue, stepping back from that, that positive youth development, particularly for poor kids, particularly for poor kids of color, is a social justice issue in and of itself.

We’re moving away from raising our children in communities to raising our children on the principle of choice.

One of the things about the programs we run is that excellence is taken very seriously, and so is integrity and accountability. This is not ‘come in when you feel like it and we’ll play.’ This is like, ‘we have very specific things we want to achieve and you have to get on board with it’ and the demands are quite high. We see that as a social justice issue. Like, they deserve that experience as much as anyone else, do you know what I mean? And they deserve as much room to screw it up. People of color who screw up, sometimes the stakes are very high, a privileged white kid has more room to screw up and that’s a social justice issue.

What’s the relationships between school and community, between poverty and academics?

Let’s take it back. I think there’s a bigger problem than the nuts and bolts of the education debate around this issue. I think that we’re at a point in time where we’re seeing the fruition or culmination of a ‘unique evolutionary moment,’ as I refer to it. We’re moving away from raising our children in communities to raising our children on the principle of choice, right? I think that’s a good thing, I think that’s a positive, and I think what’s happening is that, we’re preparing our kids for the world their going to inhabit and that’s a good change. Because our kids are not going to grow up in communities anymore, they don’t. They grow up as individuals. So, when I was growing up I was raised to be a citizen and a community member. To be a good person, which meant treating the people around me as a good person would. Children today are being raised to be individuals, economic actors and agents who are going to be making choices. Who are going to decide where they want to live in the world. I’m talking about those who have privilege and everyone who aspires to that. So across the board, when we’re talking about young people we’re talking more about choice.

So for me, when we’re talking about schools, they haven’t caught up with that. The curriculum as such and their role hasn’t caught up with that. And what I mean by that is, they’re now being asked to serve a lot of the roles that the community used to serve. The character of young people, their inner life, social-emotional learning. Before that was done at home and in your community, and for a lot of people, in the church. Now we’re asking the school to do all that. Because the community doesn’t exist in the same way, because they’re being asked to make choices now, and because mom and dad are working. And they’re working really hard.

Everyone also knows that, from a scientific perspective, when you test things they fail, and you try again and they fail, and you try and try a thousand times, but when students fail here, we kick them out. That’s dishonest.

School is a very important place because it’s one of the only places young people gather as a community. If I was running a school, I would extend the school day but wouldn’t have it be school. From 3:30-6:00 run programs explicitly around social-emotional learning (SEL), and over high school it would go from fun to serious to independent study. And not just performing arts as the vehicle, a million other things.

Now, what’s important about doing that well. Because a lot of the time when people talk about doing SEL what they do is…

Garbage.

Right.

It needs to be experiential, young people need to be in control of its fate. It needs to have a goal that their working towards, and it needs to be fun, exciting, it needs to be compelling.

What should the impact of that type of programming be? What have you seen the impact be?

Confidence. I want them to be 100% confident that they can resolve the conflicts around them, 100% confident that they can do something about the world, 100% confident that they’re going to be OK. You know what I mean? I want them to feel capable and confident in everything they do. Because I think there’s this mistake…

Young people think, because they’ve been told, that there’s this mastery they need to have of life and then everything’s OK. And I think they need to understand that, there’s no mastery of life. There’s a mastery of confidence, if you want to call it that. The mastery you need is understanding ‘I can deal with this. I can figure this out.’ And that, by the way I think is a function of testing. If you test everyone, if there’s a test at the end, then everyone thinks, ‘oh, I have to master all of this so I can answer all the questions.’ But, do you know how often I’m tested in life, in my job in 21 years? Never. No one has ever made me fill out a bubble hole. So, how is doing that useful? It’s so old school, I’m floored. And to the point about preparing these guys for the world they’re going to live in, we all know that the idea of ‘the test’ is not how it works in the world.

And everyone also knows that, from a scientific perspective, when you test things they fail, and you try again and they fail, and you try and try a thousand times, but when students fail here, we kick them out. That’s dishonest. That’s teaching them, on some macro level, a very unscientific method, for all of our emphasis on STEM research. And the lack of integrity in education in that sense, is crazy.

Now, you’re not going to eradicate poverty and then have great schools, right. Because we all see schools as the mechanism for eradicating poverty.

I understand why testing is done. Testing is done so they can manage results like a business. But education is not business, it cannot be business anymore than a mother and father can come home and treat their children like their employees. Education is closer to parenting than it is to business. I understand why the system needs to be managed like a business, but the classroom and the individual schools needs to be managed much much much more closely to parent, family and household than like a business. Every teacher knows this.

The payoff with kids is often time a long way away. You don’t know when a kid’s gonna (snaps) get it. And a lot of it is beyond your control. It’s where their brain is, and nutrition, and the social forces that are going on in their lives, and I do believe that the single biggest destructive force in their lives is poverty.

If you try to engineer a teacher you’re going to fail.

Now, you’re not going to eradicate poverty and then have great schools, right. Because we all see schools as the mechanism for eradicating poverty. You use education to move up. But I do believe there’s a way for schools to address those forces in their kids’ lives so that they deal with them honestly. And then they need support from everybody else. So, if you go to east New York, south Bronx, Jamaica-Queens, and you have a poor community school. They need more than just being a school and we need to reconfigure that. We need to rethink that.

Internationally, the United States is one of the only developed countries that gives less resources to schools in high poverty areas.

That is so unfair it’s not even funny. That is the most unfair thing in the world.

(The conversation shifts to how adults who work with young people are trained)

If you try to engineer a teacher you’re going to fail. Young people can smell inauthenticity and irrelevance (snaps) like that. So a teacher, an adult, anyone working with young people has to be authentic and relevant in their lives, and be bringing something relevant to them as far as a teacher in terms of subject matter. Or make a subject matter relevant for them.

When you start teaching, we call it painting by the numbers, when someone starts teaching by the numbers, and they say something like, ‘what’s my response to that question?’ It’s like OK, pause, the response to that question has to be your response to that question, first and foremost, or they’re not going to buy it. I mean you have to digest the material, but then you have to get in there. And that’s really a theatrical technique. Given a script, digest it and then make it authentic.

How would you describe the philosophy of The Possibility Project?

So, we don’t have ‘a philosophy,’ but there’s a lot of things we’ve learned that we hang on to. So, I’ll tell them to you as we remember them over the course of the year. One is that every time we meet a young person, when we first meet them, we try to imagine them as positive, powerful, productive people as adults, and then we ask ourselves, ‘ok, what do they need to get there?’ We never ever take a pathological or deficit model. We never say, ‘ok so they’ve got these issues or those issues,’ it’s just not how we look at them. We envision them, imagine them as excellent. We know that they’re incredibly capable. They can do amazing things, just period. Not matter who they are. We have kids who have very serious deficits and all that and for us that’s no excuse not to be able to achieve, certainly in our context. I mean, acting, singing, dancing, anyone can do that if they want to, to some degree of success.

We see creativity as the highest form of empowerment.

There’re so many philosophies right, I think another one is that the key to unlocking everything for a kid is social-emotional. It’s not just cognitive. It’s not just educational. In fact, I would argue that it’s almost all SEL. And it’s funny right, because everyone says if we want a kid to go to college, we’ve got to give them tutoring, and SAT prep, and this and that, and the other thing, and I’m like well, if that kid gets lit up, if he gets motivated he’s going to figure out how to do all that for himself, she’s going to figure out how to do all that for herself. Which is one, more efficient. Two, you didn’t need to put in all these new dependencies. And three, it’ll probably stick. If they figure things out for themselves now, they can figure out everything else for themselves in the future, rather than have to find the next professional service for them to hire so they can take the next step in their lives.

Also, we see creativity as the highest form of empowerment. If you live your life reacting to what happens to you, muddling through, that’s one way. If you understand that your life is yours to create, that the future is yours to make, then you’re in a great place. You’re going to get busy making that future happen, confident, motivated, all of those things. But I think how you understand how to do that, is by practicing, studying and creating things.

In our environment, the idea of creativity is not like, ‘ok, here’s some colored scarves and colored paper, let’s create,’ do you know what I mean? That’s exploring, and exploration is a part of creativity, but creativity is a long involved process. It involves discipline and commitment and accountability, and muscle and sweat and tears.

We believe in a lot of things I mean there are so many things we believe in.

It was the strongest indictment of education I’ve ever heard. Them saying, ‘a big part of the reason I love The Possibility Project is that it’s not school.’

We also believe in not exploiting our kids’ experiences, and we make sure we never ever author their story for them. We don’t do it in the program. We don’t do it in fundraising. We don’t do it, ever. That’s part of the integrity. That when you peel what we do back to the center, the center holds.

What do they tell you about school?

They don’t like it. We did a three year research project with teachers college at Columbia University, Michael Hanson and the National Center for Children and Families. One of the most consistent responses in the whole survey was how they answered the question about why they like The Possibility Project. They said, ‘because it’s not school.’ It was the strongest indictment of education I’ve ever heard. Them saying, ‘a big part of the reason I love The Possibility Project is that it’s not school.’

Why don’t they like school?

I would say, the reason they don’t like school, God there’re so many reasons. One, they have to sit all day long. They sit in chairs, which I think is crazy. Two, their teachers are not exciting or compelling. Most of their teachers are boring. Three, they don’t understand the relevance of what they’re learning. I think the biggest reason they don’t like school is that they have no idea why they’re there and no one’s even talking about that question.

I just looked at a series of evaluations from last year’s program. We ask a question about our program as it relates to school. “Did this program make you more interested or excited about school?” And every single one of them was ‘no.’ On a four point scale, four being ‘a lot,’ one being ‘none at all,’ it was ‘none.’ Now mind you, we’re trying. I just think they’ve given up on it. School sucks.

It is harder to get people excited about solving systems of equations than performing a musical.

Yes yes, but if those are happening in the same community. If the musical community is the same community that’s sitting next to each other in the classroom, it would change. And if the teachers that are teaching math were instructed to make it relevant. Not like ‘ok 3 hos meet 9 pimps. 3 hos and nine pimps makes how many fucked up people?’ that’s not what I’m talking about, not that sort of ‘cool hip-hop relevance.’ I’m talking about, let’s talk about why math is important. Spend the first week just giving them the history of mathematics. When you’re a child, not so much, but by the time you’re a teenager, that question of ‘why’ needs to be answered.

 

To read about the evening we spent with the teenagers and artistic directors of The Possibility Project click here.

(Young people from TPP’s Foster care program also wrote and acted in a real feature film titled Know How. You can stream it on Netflix.)

Community and Purpose: An Evening with The Possibility Project

Community and Purpose: An Evening with The Possibility Project

On Wednesdays The Possibility Project meets in a small rehearsal studio in New York City’s Lower East Side. A dozen teenagers and four adults cluster into various groups. Some sit on the hardwood floors, others sit on metal folding chairs, and others stand, acting out the words they’ve just written. The youth lean forward into one another’s comments and ask questions. They come to agreements and put pen to paper. Their conversations are intense. They talk about how to bring to life to scenes of domestic abuse, sexism, and the tensions of being an ambitious young person on the streets. They’re in the process of creating a musical inspired by their own lives.

The adults float around the room to ask clarifying questions and encourage indecisive groups to stand and ‘act it out’ to see if an idea lands. Everything about their body language communicates a feeling of collaborative deference toward the youth. Some teens roll away from their group, kick their legs in the air, walk out of the room without notice. None of these actions are acknowledged or ‘corrected’ by the directors. This isn’t that type of program.

“It’s the relationships with one another that are the mechanism for all the positive change.”

The show’s narrator is by himself in the corner. He wears sweatpants, a white t-shirt, and a du-rag. He lays on his stomach to write, occasionally looks up with a pensive expression, and then returns to the page. He’s been writing like this for about 30 minutes when I introduce myself. He explains that he wants the narration to have a spoken word poetry feel. I ask if he can share one of his poems and he smiles:

I was raised by killers,

I wanna’ be a king.

They forgot about their soul,

Chasing material things.

The poem is a powerful statement about rising above the static of one’s environment to become the person you know you can be. When I stand up, he offers his hand and thanks me for taking an interest in his writing.

The Possibility Project is many things. It’s a performing arts program, a youth development program and a social change program, but most of all it’s a community of young people. This is by design. As Paul Griffin, the founder and Executive Director, explained to me earlier in the day, it’s the “relationships with one another that are the mechanism for all the positive change.” This idea that the most powerful impact doesn’t flow from adult to young person, but between young people, was one of the earliest insights of the program.

“But there ain’t no power til we all have it.”

It’s interesting to think about this in the context of many high-performing district and charter schools, where teachers and administrators are more committed to containing and minimizing the social nature of teenagers than tapping into it. What would it mean to instead see this as teenagers’ greatest asset? What could that look like in a K-12 environment?

When I talked with the youth during their break and after rehearsal they were remarkably consistent on the point of community. Each of the five youth I talked with mentioned the importance of ‘trust.’ The thing about writing a musical inspired by the most difficult challenges in your life is that you need to share what those challenges are. “It’s made me less angry. I keep everything bottled up always. It’s helped me be open and trust people but the best part is learning to let go of the past cause I like to cling to it,” said A. She went on to say that the scene coaches are the “most important people in the world. They never judge you. Kenny and Elizabeth saved my life, literally.”

A first year cast member, JC, told me, “It keeps me calm. I talk my feelings out instead of keeping them in. And there’s lots of people I can trust. You can express life and feelings and no one gonna judge you because everyone has their own story. Everybody has love for people. We have a voice and we can be heard. All of these parents don’t want to listen cause they think they have the power. But there ain’t no power til we all have it.”

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The Possibility Project’s Artistic Directors (left to right); Meagan Baca-Dubois, Elizabeth Howard-Phillips, Kenneth Phillips, and Niquana Clark

Of course, the youth in The Possibility Project don’t bear their souls to one another as an end in itself. If TPP is most fundamentally a community of young people, it’s most visibly a high-octane performing arts program. Their performances are a powerful mix of song and dance, revolving around scenes that depict the most gut-wrenching experiences teens in the city experience and overcome. They leave audiences slack-jawed and sometimes unbelieving that every aspect was created by the youth themselves. “We don’t recruit for talent but at the same time we expect the sky in terms of talent,” Paul Griffin told me. “We take excellence very seriously.” It’s this kind of nonchalant, yet intensely focused belief that, all young people are capable of rising to previously unimagined expectations, which brings authenticity and depth to the social-emotional and community building parts of the program. Expectations are everything. Earlier this year, they even released a movie, Know How, that was written and performed by students in the foster care program. You can stream it on Netflix.

At the end of rehearsal, the group circled up and gave each other shout outs. After the shout outs the rehearsal was over, but the teens still ran up to one another for their ‘three hugs,’ which is basically what it sound like. It’s an impressive sight, a room of smiling faces. Outside, most of the youth milled about on the sidewalk. I approached a pair of them to ask about the difference between The Possibility Project and school. “School is just to do work that’s not really helping you,” they said, “working hard for credits and a degree. Here you just come as who you are. It’s all encouragement. All good vibes. You work to speak your voice. It teach you how to deal with emotions. How to understand your point of view on life.”

The Possibility Project is different from a K-12 environment. But still, I wonder what lessons classroom teachers and administrators could learn from the work that they do?

– Will

Over 99% of The Possibility Project’s cast members stay in High School. High School GPAs rise .5 points on average and over 90% of students go to college. Maybe even more impressive, over 90% of cast members report resolving conflicts in their lives differently because of their experience with the program. There are no photos or names of youth in this article because, unlike teens in the Tuesday/Thursday program and the Saturday program, all of the youth in the Wednesday program are in the city’s foster care system and are subject to clear laws prohibiting publication of their photos.

For a more in-depth discussion of The Possibility Project’s history and approach, look out for my extended interview with Paul Griffin.

Here’s a Netflix link to the movie Know How.

http://the-possibility-project.org/