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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.

Poverty is Not the Problem with Education (Part 1)

Poverty is Not the Problem with Education (Part 1)

When we’re young, we tend to think that all schools are like the ones we attend. Even as adults, people who went to well-functioning schools tend to think that all schools offer a quality education. If students who attend some schools lack basic math skills, act out in class, or have trouble decoding a text written for their grade-level, then the problem must be the student or their environment. The problem must be poverty.

But the way students are treated and what’s expected of them, varies dramatically from one school to another. Even a school’s attitude towards itself, how seriously it takes its obligation to educate, can vary drastically.

I recently visited a school in Santiago in a relatively low-income area. We arrived during a break and students mulled about in the large courtyard. When the bell rang, I assumed that we would head to a classroom but nothing happened. Students continued to loiter. Ten, then fifteen, minutes went by. My host explained that the teachers were in a meeting that was running late.

Poverty and Education Students Loitering

Students loitering after the bell has rung

Class eventually started. The teacher had all the students stand and greet him and then spent about 10 minutes hooking up a projector. The lesson’s objective was on sorting information with charts. Students ‘accomplished’ this objective by watching two commercials and sorting the problems and solutions described by the commercials into columns in a table. The teacher then spoke over a chattering room to instruct them to apply this skill to interviews they had conducted. I circulated to three groups during this part of the lesson, but none of the students could show me the interviews. The class was essentially free to socialize. When I asked if all their classes were like this they laughed and said ‘yes.’

In the late 1970s Jean Anyon conducted intensive research to see how schools that served different economic groups in the U.S. treated students. What she found was troubling but, sadly, not surprising.

Anyon observed that working-class schools mostly prioritized order and discipline. Instruction was organized around copying and memorization, while larger concepts were ignored altogether. ‘Good teachers’ were those with quiet classrooms and discipline was often enforced with sarcastic or derisive language. Students resisted this treatment by rejecting the legitimacy of the school and the relevance of the work in front of them. When students were asked if they could ‘create knowledge’ the answer was almost uniformly ‘no.’

In Affluent-Professional schools (think accountants, lawyers, engineers, small-business owners) things looked different. Students wrote essays and engaged in projects. Creativity was valued and it was emphasized that each students’ work should be unique. Consequently, students showed immense pride in the products of their work. Discipline was maintained more by influence than outright control. The teacher would regularly initiate conversations with the class about the type of behavior she should see and why. When students were asked if they could create knowledge nearly all of them said ‘yes.’*

Poverty and Education talking with students

Talking with students at the working-class school

People often say that students in low-income communities have trouble focusing or act out in class because they are mimicking the unstable environments they live in. They come from ‘broken homes’ where they can’t be expected to have learned values like respect and responsibility. But in my ten years of working with low-income communities, I’ve seen that values of responsibility and especially respect, are emphasized more, not less, in low-income communities.

I have experience teaching in both working-class and affluent-professional contexts, and I know that if I treated my affluent students the way working-class students are treated, they would rebel. They would reject my legitimacy as a teacher and, at best, put forth some minimal effort to complete the work I gave them. Later, they would then talk with their parents, who would quickly express their concerns to the principal. The principal would listen to these concerns with a great deal of respect, and I would very quickly find myself in a serious talk about my teaching strategies.

“Teachers with other ideas, systems they bring from somewhere else, they generally don’t last,” said Shannon Watt. We were talking about how the affluent Southern Cross school was able to maintain such a strong culture. I asked what she meant. “For instance, we’ve had teachers who want their class to stand up and formally greet them at the beginning of class. No. Here the teacher comes in and they may say ‘Hi,’ but there’s no formal greeting. That’s not going to work here. If a teacher tries to be overly strict it’s not going to work for the students.”

When Shannon showed me around some classrooms, I saw 4th graders solving problems with multiple different strategies. I asked a student how he completed a math problem and he jumped right into an explanation, including the reason he used a certain the method.** Later the class was asked if there’s a relationship between multiplication and division. There was a thoughtful silence. The first student response was that, ‘they both involve numbers.’ This caused a laugh, but the teacher let them think about it some more. A few other students offered answers, and soon they were explaining how knowing your times tables makes division easier. When I asked this class why they like school, almost all of them said, “Because I like learning.”

Poverty and Education southern cross

Ms. Javier, the 4th grade teacher at Southern Cross

It’s true that many students from working-class communities put forth less effort in class and act out more often than their more privileged peers. But when they do this, they are not normally ‘bringing their home life into the school.’ They are simply having normal human reactions to the way they are being treated. If anything, students with unstable home lives are those who yearn the most for school to be a sanctuary of caring and support. When schools fail in this responsibility, these young people often feel it as a kind of betrayal.

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that poverty is a non-factor. The effects of poverty on young people are real and can be very deep. Nor do I want to suggest that teachers in working-class schools should go into work tomorrow and pretend that they can reverse their students’ relationship to school with a new management plan. Questions about where to go from here are tricky, and I’ll explore them later in this series. For now, I’ll just say that poverty, in itself, is not the primary problem holding schools back. The way schools react to poverty, how they choose to treat students from low-income backgrounds and the stunted expectations they communicate; those are the principal problems facing education.

  • Will

*Anyon also profiled middle-class and executive elite schools. For a full description you should check out her paper. But a general overview is that middle-class teachers give students some more choice but the focus of most work is finding the ‘right answer.’ Students are more engaged but don’t feel that the content is relevant. Executive elite schools actually offer less opportunities for creativity than the affluent schools but the workload is generally much higher. There is an emphasis on ‘excellence’ and students behavior is corrected by reminding them of the ‘responsibility to succeed.’

** I also visited a 1st grade classroom where the teacher talked about how challenging it was to get students to explain their work. But she also talked about why it was incredibly important. This was interesting. The 4th graders were obviously used to explaining their work and they were quite good at it. Some people may attribute this skill to their more affluent home lives, but doesn’t it make more sense to credit this skill to the perseverance of their earlier teachers?

 

 

Creating a Collaborative School Culture (Part 1)

Creating a Collaborative School Culture (Part 1)

The teachers Shannon Watt works with talk about her in tones of grateful reverence. If you’ve spent much time in teachers’ lounges, you may appreciate how unusual this tone of voice is. Especially when the topic of conversation is school administration.

“She trusts us. She gives us freedom,” began one, 18-year veteran, teacher.

“But its freedom with responsibility,” added another.

“Exactly.”

We got to this point after I asked them why they think the culture at Southern Cross (one of the best private schools in Chile) is so strong. First, they spoke about the strong relationships between students and teachers. They said teachers aren’t seen as a ‘big authority,’ and that it’s important to help students understand that behavior corrections are meant to help them become better people. But they quickly switched to talking about their own development.

“And the teachers here are always studying.”

“It’s tough, but nice. Like Kagan… It was difficult at first but now I love it.”

By ‘Kagan’ the teacher meant a set of cooperative learning strategies that are quickly gaining popularity in the United Sates as well.

“Cooperative learning started because the teachers wanted it,” explained Shannon Watt. “They saw that kids didn’t know how to work in groups. They made group work and it didn’t work. The kids had to learn how to work in groups.” Ms. Watt is also a trainer for Singapore math and, interestingly, it was a teacher from Singapore who recommended Kagan. So Ms. Watt bought the book, travelled to the States for training and then returned to try the strategies out with her own class.

“So, I tried it. The first weeks I thought, ‘this is terrible, this book was phony.’ Everything was ‘Ahhh!’ I didn’t know if it was going to work. And then the third week kids started engaging and it went well. I saw them working. And then I invited other teachers to come see my classes. They liked what they saw and that was the way we put it in.”

Shannon Watt
Shannon Watt

I think there’s a lot to learn about effective administration from this account.

  1. The teachers identified group work as a priority. The reform wasn’t coming down from out of the blue.
  2. Shannon did exhaustive preparation on her own and then piloted the strategies in her own classroom. In this way, she was in a position to truly empathize with the challenges her teachers faced later.
  3. She stuck with it for three weeks before it started to work. For me, this emphasizes the unwavering expectations she holds her students to. I’ve seen many teachers from working-class schools attempt and then abandon Kagan strategies after a few days. They say the initial disaster is proof that these strategies won’t work in ‘their environment’ or for ‘their students.’ It’s worth noting that a veteran teacher at a prestigious school encountered the same difficulties, she just reacted to them differently.
  4. Before pulling teachers into trainings, she invited them to her room and allowed a ‘buzz’ to build around the techniques. When the training finally started it was something they were eager to learn.

It’s not hard to see why her teachers love working with her.

The Harvard Business Review has done a number of studies about why people do or don’t like their jobs. Two of the most powerful factors for job satisfaction they’ve found are:

  1. Feeling trusted by your supervisor.
  2. Opportunities to develop professionally in a meaningful way.

Too often in the United States administrators limit their communications with teachers to discussing evaluations and obligations. This approach fairly quickly chips away at the trust most teachers initially feel toward their administration. And it’s a cliché by now for teachers to be bombarded by new waves of ‘teacher proof’ classroom strategies every few years; strategies devised without their input, and without any concern for the specific dynamics of their classroom. Teachers end up feeling that the school or district doesn’t understand them and doesn’t care to. The idea the district ‘trusts’ them is often almost laughable.

Ms. Watt’s approach to leadership is clearly different. Her teachers love working with her because they feel trusted. And the way their development is set up makes them excited to grow in their craft. It’s amazing the differences happy teachers make.

But before Shannon Watt helped her teachers create a collaborative environment for her students, she first had to work on creating a collaborative culture amongst her teachers. Shannon is quick to point out that the above story never would have happened if it hadn’t been for Lesson Study. For more on that story, check out tomorrow’s post.

  • Will