Sunday, September 11, 2016

Resistance training: Big changes at the Depot

"I do not like Project Block. Nobody likes it. Everybody hates it."

That was what one student said as he came in and plopped down in his seat for "Project Block" this week.

It's just one of the big changes we've made this year at E. O. Smith's Depot Campus. For an hour and half, three times a week, we get all the students together in the Big Room, with Ellen and our new UCONN interns, Rose and Nick, and we work on projects together. It's meant to be a scaffold--to help them learn how to plan and carry out their own projects.

As I explained to my disgruntled student, even though our school was built on an independent learning model, there was too little of that going on--our students simply lacked the skills.

And they have to work hard during this block. We put a big timer on the screen, and for ten minutes they have to be 100% focussed on their work--no phones, Youtube, or talking. We take a short break, then repeat. The goal is to break the process down into short-term goals and build their ability to focus. A successful ten minute run means a poker chip, and poker chips add up to credits and rewards.

Last Wednesday, they worked through five 10-minute cycles like that, and they cranked through their biomes powerpoints, which are the first project in our climate change theme.

Each project will focus on a part of the project process, and we'll gradually release responsibility to them until they are able to work independently for an hour and a half, three days a week, on their own projects.

It's just one of the big changes we've made as we continue to work to build the Depot into a place known for hard work and innovation--a place where students can stand out through real world experience and really cool independent projects.

Of course, I expect a little resistance along the way, but that's OK. It's not supposed to be easy. It's supposed to make us stronger.

That goes for me and them.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

How we beat the post-lunch summer program slump... this time

How's this for summer school? Start the day with breakfast and a mini-lesson about plants. Head outside to tend your thriving gardens, measure plants for your experiments, fertilize, water, weed, whatever needs to be done. At 11:00, head back in, make a fresh lunch together, and eat.

Sounds nice, doesn't it? Until you realize that the last two hours of the day are inside, working on online  Aleks math or Moodle biology.

It's tough to stay focused on stuff like that, and that's been our biggest challenge with the program this summer.

We had two choices at this point: Accept the current low level of afternoon engagement as something we can't change or see it as an obstacle that we can overcome. So here's what we tried this week:

"OK, guys, we're gonna make a game of this. I'm going to time you for ten minutes. Stay focused on your work, and you get a white poker chip. We'll take a quick break and restart the timer. Plus, you get a chip for every topic you finish on Get 48 chips over the next four weeks, and you get full credit for this portion of the summer program... plus a bonus field trip."

They got through 5 full cycles of focused work and an average of twenty-something topics on Aleks! At one point, I placed a chip in front of a student, and he exclaimed, "Yes!"

I just finished my second run through Ryan Holiday's book, The Obstacle Is the Way, and this is his basic message: See obstacles as opportunities for growth, take action when you can, and persevere.

Who knows if this will continue to work for us, but if nothing else, this obstacle became an opportunity. For me, it was an opportunity to try out some gamification. For them, it was an opportunity for some small wins.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The power of food: The Depot Kitchen Crew

We made some big changes at the Depot this year. These included some pretty sophisticated heavy hitters, like a new competency rubric, new data tracking tools and new accountability and support structures. But my favorite change is a bit more basic. Primal, even.  It's our new Kitchen Crew.

Throughout the year, students cooked breakfast for the whole school every Friday morning. They made pancakes, bacon and eggs, breakfast burritos, skillets, French toast, and some beautiful yogurt parfaits. But the most important thing to come out of that kitchen wasn't  pancakes, but a sense of ownership, self-esteem and community.

It was exciting to see them in the kitchen, working together, cutting vegetables, turning bacon, flipping French toast, and serving their fellow students over the counter. It was fun to see the line forming, and the students eating together in our little cafeteria.

They even expanded the program themselves to include some soups and salads for lunch.

Did it take some extra time from the day?

Yes. It took a small bite out of instructional time on Friday morning.

Did it take some effort on our part?

Yes. Ellen met with the students weekly, shopped for food, and supervised every Friday morning.

Did it cost money?

Yes, and it was privately funded.

But was it worth it?


Here are the top three reasons I hope to continue it next year:

First, food sharing is in our DNA. Primates do it all the time to boost oxytocin, forge bonds and build community. This is why we gather for meals... and share pictures of our food on Facebook when we can't.

Our climate survey did not show the positive impact I was hoping for, but there were lots of other things going on this year. Big changes were made, students left, and new students were added. We certainly don't have a controlled experiment, and we have a very small sample size. But we do have evidence of positive impact: consistent, voluntary, enthusiastic involvement of 9 students (half our population) throughout the school year, widespread enjoyment of the breakfasts, and these awesome pictures.

Second, these students are learning to cook and eat wholesome food. OK,  pancakes aren't the healthiest, but they're better than fruit loops, Monster drinks and donuts. Plus, the crew made plenty of salads and soups for lunch as well.

And it worked. Ellen's enthusiasm and vision for the role of healthy food in their lives was contagious. By the end of the year, the teams worked like clockwork, turning out delicious, full breakfasts in half an hour or less.

It even carried over into their home lives. One parent told us her daughter has started cooking meals for them at home as a result of her time on the Kitchen Crew!

Third, these students are taking ownership of their school and finding a place here, and this is a key aspect of a positive school culture. We've seen the pride they're finding in building their gardens this summer, and I think the Kitchen Crew must feel the same way. They played a real role. Some began asking to cook at other times, and lunchtime soup and salad became a regular occurrence. One student even started seeing herself as "the soup lady."

Fourth, in addition to basic cooking skills, they gained practice in leadership, cooperation, and collaboration. It wasn't always smooth sailing down there in the kitchen. They had their share of personality clashes and disagreements over who would cook what and how, and they worked through it all.

Of course, there's also plenty of room for improvement for next year. Here are the top three changes I'm hoping to make:

First, data: I need to figure out a way to test whether or not the program really has the positive effects I hope it will, probably by using our life skills rubric, interviews, and more specific questions on the climate survey.

Second, credit: I didn't assign the students credit for participation this year, but I plan to do so next year, and base it on mastery of competencies.

Third, expand the concept. I want to expand the concept of giving each student a key role at the school. I'm hoping a full time Garden Crew will grow out of our summer garden program, and maybe a Grounds Crew. And I'd love to see a PR Crew make promo videos and stuff!

I think all of these would have powerful impacts, but I see the kitchen as always playing a central role. Maybe I'm biased, since this little program is my favorite, but several million years of evolution can't be wrong. Food is not only at the base of Maslow's pyramid, it can be the basis for higher levels as well, creating a sense of belonging, and boosting self-esteem.

I can't help but think that it has and will continue to play a powerful role in these students lives, and make the Depot into and even more powerful and positive place.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Pride, perseverance, and process: What we're learning from our new summer program

Depot students busy at work on their Gardens
"No, it's not good enough. The nail's sticking out the side of the board!"

"OK. Let's fix it."

Building a simple raised bed is not easy if you've never done it before--even harder if you've never used a hammer.

But that's why we're here. We're here to build foundational skills--our students' and our own. They're learning pride and perseverance. We're learning how to run a summer program and really support students.

Pride and perseverance

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the student who finished his raised bed and said this was the first time he'd ever been proud of anything at school. He's taking a similar pride in his lab notebook and the experiment he designed for his garden, and in beautifying his box.

Painting our boxes
I got the idea from some beautifully painted beehives I'd seen online. I showed them to the students, and it captured their imaginations. They were excited to make their gardens even more beautiful, and more their own.

They applied the same pride to applying their fertilizers, keeping track of which ones they added and how much, even measuring the water they added, for their controlled experiments.

And then there was the new box. We had some extra soil and needed to build a couple of smaller boxes, so two  students decided to build one on their own. They'd never done it before, and even getting the nails in straight was a challenge. At one point, the boards were obviously crooked. While one claimed it was "good enough," the other insisted they pull it apart and start over. What an important lesson in quality and perseverance! No, it still wasn't perfect, but nothing ever is, right?

Making home-made pizza for their classmates

Never enough support

Speaking of imperfection, the weak point in the program so far has  definitely been the online work. The students love working on the gardens, helping cook lunch, and they're even engaged in my little mini-lessons on science while they eat some breakfast.

The online courses are proving much more challenging. They had three choices: for math and two courses on Moodle that I've created over the past few years: Biology and The History and Philosophy of Science.

So far, one student is cranking through Biology and doing very high quality work. There's another a bit behind, four others have done a few assignments each, and two have just gotten started.

We work on the gardens until noon, have lunch, then spend the last one to one-and-a-half hours working on our online work. What I'm finding is that, even with me right there with them, they struggle to stay focused and be productive after lunch. I can think of a few possible reasons for this:

  1. Post-lunch dip. Their own biology is overriding my online course. :-)
  2. Those darn Chromebooks. I used to be a huge fan, but it's so easy to get distracted by Youtube when you're supposed to be working, and the little laptops make it hard for me to see what they're doing.
  3. Lack of clarity and capacity. I continue to tweak my online courses to make everything as clear as possible, but I'm sure I've got a long way to go, and as the Heath brother's have said, "What looks like resistance is often lack of clarity," and the same goes for a lack of capacity.

I was wondering why one student hadn't started the course yet. Well, this week, I found out. He said he thought it was too late, since some of the deadlines had passed. I told him I had only set deadlines as guidelines, that there are no late penalties, and that he could (and should) still do all the work. I thought I'd made it clear, but obviously I hadn't, and it had consequences.

And then there's the capacity issue. Not only do they need help staying off Youtube, they probably need more help with the content. With one stellar exception, the few who have done written assignments online need to go back and resubmit. What happens when they are faced with the choice of working on an assignment that is difficult or unclear and watching Netflix?

This whole summer program is about extra support, but it's still not enough. They need more, so let's make it better. We're going to try expanding the program to once per week and rework the online time to make it more structured and better supported.

Build it. Examine it. Make it better. Repeat.

Whether it's a raised bed or a school, it's a process, and it's worth the effort.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Top 3 takeaways from my first year in admin.

Just finished my first year as director of this little alternative school we call The Depot. Here are my top three takeaways:

1) A year ago, I had been 100% sold on Daniel Pink's model of motivation--that if you just increase autonomy, opportunity for mastery, and purpose, people will be naturally self-motivated. I was excited to see it in action when I started last September at this little Big Picture school, but by halfway through my first year, I changed my mind.

I'm not saying the model is wrong, but at least in the simplistic way we were applying it, it's incomplete. We need to scaffold the independent learning process and make sure they have the foundational skills they need. My new working model for motivation incorporates Pink, but within a broader framework. It has led to some new supports this year, a new assessment system, increased data tracking and a new incentive and support structure in the works for next year.

2) Speaking of support, the second biggest thing I've learned is how much I need other people. I've always been kind of a self-sufficient type. OK, maybe that's an understatement. But this year it became very evident, very quickly that I could absolutely not do this alone.

I'm still learning this lesson. I'm learning to reach out for assistance when we have students we don't have the resources to serve, for advice when I'm faced with a tough disciplinary situation, and for help when I'm getting overwhelmed. Delegation is something I'm working on, as well as supporting my staff so they can support our students. But I'm also very much aware of the support and encouragement they and others provide me. Without them, I'd never have made it. Together, we had a very successful year. 

3) The last big takeaway is another work-in-progress. I have a lot to learn about balancing demanding and understanding. At the end of the year, I gave the students a survey that asked them to identify the worst thing about the Depot. Four of them wrote, "Bill," and half of them said they didn't feel like they could come to me with their concerns.

Maybe they were students who'd been disciplined or pushed harder than they wanted to be, but it may also represent a real failure on my part. I'm a perfectionist, and that comes out in the way I relate to others. I need to make sure I do as much smiling as I do keeping a "stiff upper lip." As I'm raising the bar, I need to be constantly holding out my hand.

My wife and I watched Lean On Me last night, the classic film about high school principal, Joe Clark. His radical, authoritative approach turned an inner city school around in the 80s. I met his son, J. J. Clark (UCONN's track coach), at the gym the other day, and he recommended the movie. I'm so glad he did. I saw lots of parallels with the Depot this year, and I was impressed by the way Principal Clark balanced discipline with showing care and concern. I walked away with another reminder of my need to work on being more understanding and caring, even as we continue to increase structure and standards.

It's interesting, now that I've got them all down here in print, that these three takeaways have a theme: they're all about support--providing it, seeking it, and balancing it with demands. I'm not surprised that this theme rose up like this, because I'm convinced support is the central issue in education today. I used to think the problem with American education was a faulty model. Now, I'm convinced is just a lack of sufficient support for kids who need it.

I want to be part of that change.