Thursday, December 24, 2015

Hugs like light through stormclouds

Let's just say the Depot is not without its crises and conflicts. Hardly a day goes by without some drama unfolding. Many of these young people are being  battered by life, and many lack the resiliency or the skills to cope. Sometimes the strife ripples out into our little community like a gathering thunderstorm, or else it hangs in the air like black magic.

But just as frequently, light breaks through the clouds.

Like the excitement of one struggling young person who landed his first internship last week, and another young lady whose internship just turned into a job at a law firm.

There's the growing confidence of a young man whose challenging technology project is finally getting off the ground, and the excitement and pride of a young man who came to tell me about his new, higher SAT scores.

There's the excitement among the staff as we plan new supports for students.

There's the generosity of a young lady who baked twelve dozen cookies for everyone, and the seven students who worked all morning yesterday cooking a delicious ham dinner for the whole school.

There are the smiles on faces that haven't seen many smiles lately, as they picked out an unwrapped gift during the Yankee swap.

And there are the courageous young women who sang impromptu songs for our open mic.

But the brightest light this week came from one powerful young man whose courage and compassion just blew me away. The past month has been just one painful blow after another for him, and on top of all that, a friend at the school has been seething with anger towards him for a week. So he decided to do something about it.

First, he approached his angry friend and tried to initiate a conversation: "Hey, man, we have to talk about this.." he began, and then explained his side of the story.

There was no response to this initial effort: the other student just turned away. But that wasn't the end of it. Later that day, as the angry student was sitting for the Yankee swap, this powerful young man approached him again. He came up behind him, and I heard him say something like, "I may get punched in the face for this hug, but I'm doing it anyway."

Then he wrapped his arms around this angry student, and that frown that had been there all week just... broke. It broke into a smile, though this angry kid tried to fight it. That bear hug broke through that anger like a the sun through storm clouds.

Thank you, young man, for reminding me what it's all about--what being human is all about.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Changing school from a filter to a foothold

When students are failing, we can blame it on a family issue, some supposed character flaw, or other factor out of our control, but what good will that do? We can let them fail, pass them off to someone else, or just graduate them even though they're not ready. But what good would that do?

What if, instead, we responded by increasing support?

At the Depot, we value personalized education. Our advisors (teachers) meet at least twice per year with parents and students to design individualized learning plans that outline projects the students will do, competency goals, advisory work, online math work, etc.

But the independent learning environment that lies at the heart of the Depot requires a lot of soft skills (conscientiousness, self-control, organization, etc.) and basic hard skills (reading, writing, math) that many students lack.

It dawned on me that we really need a tiered SRBI-style support system. Tier I is the current advisory/self-directed learning model. Students not being successful there can be moved to a second tier: group workshops, like our successful Senior Project Boot Camp and focused 1:1 sessions to help students complete projects, writing assignments, etc.

Just last week, a student who had been struggling to get started on his independent project since the beginning of the school year started and finished the first step in one focused, 2 hour session.

Students needing more support would move to a third tier. This highest level of support could include moving to a special support "advisory" for part or all of each day.

This is just a rough sketch, but I was excited when this resonated with some colleagues this week.

And of course, it needs to apply to behavioral issues as well. This week I did my second real restorative circle, and these are a powerful Tier II behavioral support, one that could lead to other supports such as weekly check-ins and counselling.
Success! The Rasperry Pi computer is up and running!

As I've told a couple of students this week, this is really about making sure they get the skills they need succeed, whether those are academic skills, social skills, or self-control.

I know that we won't be able to help everyone. I know there will be some who simply refuse our help, or whose needs exceed our capacity, but until that becomes clear, our job is to keeping ramping up support.

School should not be a filter, to filter out those who don't meet the standard. It's not a service for the elite--for those who can already teach themselves, or whose home lives have already ensured their success. It needs to be for everyone.

It can't be a filter. It's got to be a foothold, a foundation, a fulcrum.

We humans aren't built to thrive in a weed-out-the-weak, social Darwinist world. We're much too interconnected for that. We're built to support each other.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Brights spots of engagement

That's one of our students on the slackine. It was one of our Friday Fitness options this week. It's much harder than it looks, but it's an addictive blast. And he was fully engaged. How can we get students to be this engaged in learning?

For this week's "pick-me-up" activity on Friday morning, I gave the students the data we've been collecting on engagement. Ellen, our instructional assistant, has been walking around at random times each day recording how many students are on-task. As I told the kids Friday morning, "on-task" is not the same as engagement, and certainly not the same as flow, but it'll have to do for now.

So I handed out the data--just a list dates, times, and percentages, telling them that I wanted them to be a part of this whole "empowerment evaluation" process I'm trying to implement here. I told them I wanted them to have a say in improving their school.

I talked about doing science on ourselves. Research. Making hypotheses and testing them against the data--looking for patterns.

And then what happened?

Well, there was at least one comment along the lines of "Man, we suck!"

There was also some blank staring at the sheet.

But there was also plenty of discussion, and plenty of observations being thrown around.

I didn't give them this graph--just the data.
A few were surprised that Monday was so high. There was at least one hypothesis about why that was the case.

Many noticed that Tuesday and Thursday were very low. But this didn't surprise anyone, since these are the internship days, when fewer students are here, and those who are here are waiting to go to internship or returning from internship.

So I asked them the central question, "Would you like to see these numbers increase?" After a few heartfelt answers of "Yes!" I reminded them that if you want to see something change, you have to change something. You can't keep doing everything the same and expect results to change (seems like I've heard that somewhere before...).

As I walked around checking on their work, there were several students jotting things down on the data sheet, but one student in particular stood out. His sheet was covered in calculations. He was a picture of engagement. In fact, I'm pretty sure he was in flow.

I asked what he was finding, and he told me that he'd figured out that Wednesday's had the highest engagement, followed by Mondays and then Fridays. He'd done this by summing up all of the percentages for each day.

Why didn't he use the average? Because he was starting from where he was. I'm not sure he knew what an average was, or that it could apply here. Instead, he was working with what he knew to solve a new and meaningful problem.

Later, when he was back in his classroom, still working on the problem, I saw that he had a table constructed that included the numbers of data points for each day of the week. He had figured out that the different numbers of measurements on each day were important. When I asked him about it the problem, he replied, "Yeah, I know. I'm gonna even that out later."

Awesome. Awesome example of problem solving. Awesome example of motivation. Autonomy, mastery, and purpose in action.

He didn't have to do it (Autonomy).

He was in his flow channel (Mastery).

He was working on a real problem--to figure out what was happening with student engagement at his school (Purpose).

"One of the techniques for solving problems is called Bright Spots Analysis," I had told the students earlier that morning. "You look at the best days, and ask yourself why they are the best, and you try to replicate that."

This engaged student on Friday was a bright spot. Working with that data, doing some serious quantitative reasoning, he was as engaged as he was on that slackline. He was as engaged as I've ever seen him--as engaged as I've ever seen any student, for that matter.

Now if we can just replicate that.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Science, math, and choice at the Depot

I was more excited than I look. :-)
This blood-typing experiment was a great way to kick off the week! The meticulous way this student handled the samples was beautiful to watch. But the best thing about it was that she chose this experiment, sort of.

The Big Picture model doesn't rely on a traditional curriculum. Theoretically, student interest drives instruction, but it's not quite that simple.

Here at the Depot, students work through some predetermined activities: an autobiography, written reflections, oral presentations, online math programs, and reading and math groups, but much of their time is taken up by activities of their choosing. They spend two days a week at an internship and they get at least an hour a day for self-directed learning, which often involves projects they design, aimed at learning goals of their choice.

The blood typing experiment was one example, designed to meet a science requirement. Another student gave an energetic "pick-me-up" presentation this week to the whole school on the "Law of Attraction" and how positivity can benefit your life. She told her peers that negativity only attracts negative people and events to your life. She testified about the benefits she had seen: weight loss, more friends, less depression. Her peers were fully engaged, carefully filling out "gratitude lists" for the activity at the end. It was an exciting example of an interest-based project.

But this system is not without its challenges. What do you do, for example, with those students who are not motivated to do any independent work? And what content or skills should be mandatory, if any?

From what I've seen so far, most students prefer to demonstrate skills like collaboration, creativity and communication, rather than academic content knowledge, critical thinking, empirical or quantitative skills. The blood type experiment, for example, was not fully the student's choice. It was done to fill a science requirement, though the student chose how she would fill it.

Why is it that most students don't naturally want to do scientific experiments or academically rigorous projects on their own time? Why do we have to force it with requirements? Is it because their previous schooling has turned them off to academics or because they lack the skills, or both?

While I may choose to pursue a scientific research on my own time (I love Google Scholar), I'm also pretty good at it, and I've had lots of positive experiences with it, so I enjoy it. I could be wrong, but I think that's the key. 

The first student would not have chosen a blood type experiment without a science requirement, even though she was interested in blood, but the second student gave talk on positivity just because she wanted to. The difference? Maybe a bit more interest on the part of the second student, but a big difference in confidence and competence. The second student felt much more competent with both the content and the skill of presenting that talk. Even though the first had more skill than she recognized--she's a natural in the laboratory--she was probably a bit intimidated by the scientific content.

If our students lack competence (or confidence) in math and science, they will not choose to study it. I've heard many students, here and elsewhere, say how they once loved science--until middle school or high school, when they started to feel they lacked essential skills to pursue it. As Dr. Ross Greene puts it, "Kids do well if they can. The real question then, is "How can we help them gain the competencies they need so they'll start choosing to pursue greater competency math and science?"

Which leads me to the question of how to increase their competence. As I read more of Hattie, and as I experience more at the Depot, I'm starting to feel a need for some blend of explicit instruction with student autonomy. Maybe they can be persuaded to pursue greater competence in these areas if adequate support is provided, or maybe there is a need for a structure that mandates science and math skills and really teaches them well to all students.

There is no doubt that options are powerful and interest is a great motivator, but without essential science and math skills, science and math really aren't even an option at all, and that's not acceptable. The world today is too technical for that. But with the right supports in place, I think they'll all jump at opportunities to do science and math.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Transforming discipline to transform people: Our first restorative circle at the Depot

Four students, two staff and I sat in a circle. The looks on some of the faces were less than happy. One student was clearly angry about being included at all. He sat hunched over, hood up, glaring at the floor.

I began by asking "What happened?," and then I passed the "talking stick," which in our case depicts a carved dolphin emerging from the wood, to the first student in the circle

He passed the stick to the next student without talking, his eyes were also on the floor.

The next student gave a very short explanation of one part of the incident, and passed the to the angry student, who passed it to the last, who passed it, silently, to the first staff member.

At this point, I was getting nervous about this little process called a "restorative circle." I'd been reading about restorative practices, and this was my first real try at it. And it wasn't off to a great start.

The staff members explained their perspectives on what happened: The students were on a hike with one of the staff members as part of our weekly fitness activity. They were getting a bit too rowdy, climbing things they shouldn't, jumping off things they shouldn't, and in general, behaving like a bunch of animals.

And there just happened to be a random cake in the parking lot they were passing through at the time. Yep. There was a big cake just sitting on the ground. Need I say more?

Now, I like having fun as much as any other homo sapiens, and I recall my own teen years quite well. The problem was, a community member saw them and called the school.

So now, as we sat in the circle, I asked, "What can we do to make it right?," and I passed the stick around again.

The first student passed it again without talking. The second student repeated a strategy we had discussed the day after it happened: They would go on another hike and do it right this time--to show the staff and community they could behave themselves.

The next two students passed it again without speaking, and I decided it was time to adjust my strategy. I doubled down on one staff member's description of what was wrong about this incident, re-emphasizing that our school had actually been opposed by some members of the community when it was founded 7 years ago, how important the community's perception of the school is, and how several students, one of whom was there in the circle, had previously expressed concern to me about the school's reputation.

I passed the dolphin stick again, and this time, another student spoke up: "Let's bake a cake for the community members that reported us and write 'I'm sorry' on it."

I liked the idea, and it was cool to see her thinking creatively and restoratively about the problem.

Next, a staff member mentioned cleaning the street, and that brought a third student into the conversation. He was opposed to the street-cleaning idea, but liked the others.

Now we had three students owning it. We just needed one more.

Finally, the fourth student spoke up, but he still didn't see himself as having done anything wrong, even after I explained again that the real point here was not about right and wrong, but our relationship with the community. Though he still didn't own his part, I couldn't help but wonder what effect the appropriate responses of his peers was going to have on him.

Two days later, the five of them (one had been absent on the day of the circle) baked and decorated the cake, and delivered it, on their hike, to the community members. On the way, as they decided among themselves who would be their spokesperson, the resistant student once again said he'd done nothing wrong. This time, another student explained to him the importance of our image in the community, and that that was what this was all about.

It was great to see the students confronting their own behaviors and taking on challenging restorative conversations. It's just as much about them growing as it is about healing relationships, and it's amazing to be a part of their growth like this.

That's what that wooden dolphin thing is all about. It's the students emerging from what they were into what they could be.

It's really about me, too. This is all new to me, and when people ask how it's going, I always say it's challenging, but in a good way.

I'm excited about the potential of these restorative practices for helping these students transform their lives. And I'm thinking (hoping) I won't escape unchanged either.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Teaching the skills they really need to succeed

A student swipes in at her hospital internship.
Last weekend I read this report called "Fostering and Measuring Skills: Improving Cognitive and Non-Cognitive Skills to Promote Lifetime Success."

To sum it up, when it comes to success, non-cognitive skills are just as important as cognitive skills: "Conscientiousness predicts years of schooling with the same strength as measures of intelligence." And most significantly for us at the Depot, non-cognitive skills appear to be more malleable than cognitive skills once adolescence has been reached.

And according to this report, the best way to teach non-cognitive skills appears to be programs that include a workplace and mentoring component.

Bingo. That's the Big Picture model.

The Depot staff and I have recently begun trying to measure both types of skills with our new Competency Rubric. This trimester, we asked the students to pick one Competency from the rubric that they will focus on (in addition to Communication), for the Exhibitions. It's interesting that most of the students so far have picked Career Skills or Life Skills, which both have indicators related to the Big Five non-cognitives, like collaboration, responsibility, adaptability, self-monitoring, social skills, curiosity, and goal-setting.

During their Exhibitions, which consumed the entire week, students had to present evidence that they have been mastering these skills. Usually, this means discussing their internships and other real-world experiences.

One student told detailed stories about the brake job he'd helped complete at his job shadow, how he worked independently to remove a differential gear, and how he collaborated with other students to figure out how to speed up the breakfast cooking process on Friday mornings at the Depot.

Another showed pictures from his shadow day at a The Vanilla Bean: his kimchi prep work was a meticulous work of art.

One shared the schedule she developed for the toddlers at the daycare where she interns (and where she is absolutely loved by the staff). She shared how she is learning to deal with misbehavior by redirecting students, rather than "saying 'No'."

One student shared about how he has been installing hydrogen fuel systems in cars at his internship, and has been asked by his mentor to get involved with a new business he is starting. Another has been repairing computers, completing some repairs on her own.

Many of these students struggle with completing their "schoolwork" at the Depot, but thrive in their internships. One told how she adjusts and adapts to new environments constantly at the middle school she works at, switching from PE class to social studies to literacy, helping prepare lessons and making classroom motivational posters that are in high demand. She mentioned to me yesterday that her mentor at the middle school is the person who has had the greatest positive impact on her life.

Though we have a lot of work to do measuring and teaching non-cognitive skills, I'm excited that we're on the right track. As Kautz, et al. wrote (emphasis mine):
"Adolescent remediation is possible for children who grow up in disadvantaged environments in their early years. The available evidence suggests that the most promising adolescent interventions are those that target non-cognitive skills as well as programs that off er mentoring, guidance and information. Many adolescent programs that focus on academic skills or temporarily change a participant's environment are only successful in the short run although the short-term results can often appear to be spectacular. Workplace-based programs that teach non-cognitive skills appear to be e ffective remedial interventions for adolescents. They motivate acquisition of work-relevant skills and provide for disadvantaged youth the discipline and guidance which is often missing in their homes or high schools. Successful interventions at any age emulate the mentoring and attachment that successful families give their children."

Of course, we can't neglect cognitive skills, and we won't, but if Kautz et al. are right, they're only half the story, and we need to be intentional and rigorous about teaching all of it.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Competency-based education at the Depot Campus

They had to walk along steel cables tied between a series of trees, but the real trick was that they couldn't break the connection with the other students. They either had to be holding the next student's hand or touching the same tree. It was surprisingly challenging to stay balanced while holding only other people's hands.

The students were from three different schools. It's amazing how you end up feeling connected to people you just held hands with and saved from falling off a wire.

One of the criteria for our Career Skills competency is collaboration: "Collaborates extensively with others and adapts to varied roles/responsibilities/environments," but the students didn't just demonstrate that one as they worked together to walk the wire. They also demonstrated an indicator of the Life Skills competency: "Consistently strives to understand others' perspectives and meet others' needs whenever possible, without judgement, focusing on the positive, adjusting expectations and compromising when necessary in order to solve conflicts." It was awesome to see students encouraging people they didn't even know, not judging when someone fell off and forced the whole group to start over.

The collaboration and community-building continued as we built survival shelters together. It was fascinating listening to the constant chatter between the students on my team--students from three different schools who'd never met before: "How about if we do this?," "How about this?," "What if we did this?," and "Yeah, and then we can do this..."

As they worked, collaboration merged with Creativity and Innovation, as they  thought outside the box, "looking at the problem from a variety of perspectives."

The result was this beautiful wigwam--complete with a fire pit. They took it beyond survival--they were going  camping, and they had a great time. (Thanks to EASTCONN and Cyndi Wells for making it possible.)

But the demonstration of Competencies didn't end on Monday. Student Exhibitions are in full swing at the Depot. These oral and visual presentations, made before a panel of parents, peers, and staff, require students to practice their Communication skills as they show how they are progressing in all of the Competencies.

One of our students does her internship at a dog kennel, where they've been having trouble with kennel cough. In her Exhibition, she described how she'd noticed there had been fewer cases of kennel cough among the rescue dogs, whose kennels were bedded with shredded paper instead of wood shavings. Her input played a pivotal role in the decision to switch all of the dogs over to paper. Her quantitative and empirical reasoning (a criterion under our Critical Thinking competency) shone throughout her presentation as she casually mentioned specific numbers of dogs, observations she had made about them, and data she could collect. And she wasn't the only one who is thinking empirically. Another student is planning an experiment to test the effects of therapy dogs on the well-being of the elderly.

Other students nailed the Career Skills competency, describing how they had been given tremendous responsibility at their hospital and veterinary internships.

And the Creativity and Innovation that came out was also impressive: the science-minded senior who's been designing a permaculture landscape with his mentor, the creative athlete who choreographed a gymnastics routine for one of her young students, and the free-thinking senior who is exploring minimalist living and built a scale model of a tiny house.

All of them are required to cite evidence of each competency during their presentations, and they're getting the hang of it. At the survival skills outing on Monday, after our team successfully completed the tightrope walk, one of our students started rattling off which competencies we had demonstrated and how.

This is big. It's about more than scores and assessment. It's about clarity of expectations. It's about students getting the feedback that's essential to "flow," and students self-monitoring their progress, knowing exactly what critical life skills they are working towards... and mastering.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Three things I'm psyched about this week at the Depot

Three things I'm psyched about this week at the Depot.

1) It was awesome to see our seniors working on their senior projects for a solid three hours on Wednesday. I see it as an example of the importance of clarity, explicit instruction, and focused support. I gave them step-by-step instructions, an outline template, and a sample research paper (McDonalds vs. KFC as a model for making decisions). And they were on fire. They even came back for two more sessions, getting a ton done in this short, focussed  time. I'm a big fan of autonomy, but it doesn't mean a lack of structure--it's autonomy within a carefully structured framework. Lack of clarity equals lack of progress, and the opposite is just as true: clarity equals progress. (And focused, dedicated time probably helps, too.)

2) Along those same lines, I'm super psyched about the progress we're making on assessing and tracking our six competencies at the Depot. We now have a full, four-level rubric for all six competencies, and have started using it during the students' 1st Trimester Exhibitions. We'll track progress through the year by measuring competencies as demonstrated during their Exhibitions every trimester. I'm not big on grades, but I do think measurement is essential so that students can see their progress and we can see what's working.

3) On Friday, we capped off the week with another opportunity to practice restorative discipline. I was off campus when I got the call about the incident, which invoked a knee-jerk desire to punish the students involved. But as I drove back, I remembered my vision of restorative justice at the Depot, and after talking with staff, we came up with some exciting possible solutions. Of course the students will need to apologize to the offended parties and maybe do some work to make up for any damages, but why not have them all try it again--do the same activity the right way, without the undesirable behaviours. This would help them learn how to behave and also help restore the damaged relationships. In other words, we say to them, "Let's try that again and do it right." And why not have them score themselves on the rubric?

Whether we're working on research skills or social skills, continuous improvement is within our grasp when we are intentional and scientific about it. And this fires me up. Science fires me up because it works. "Hacking" education fires me up, because it's possible. Working towards a better fit between people and education fires me up, because it would be so powerful.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Small wins... and steps toward restoration

There's a student in my book team who loves to read fantasies and thrillers, but generally refuses to summarize or tell us what's happening in his books.

Until this Wednesday.

Wednesday, when I asked if anyone wanted to share what they'd been reading, he spent more than a minute explaining the exciting scene he had just read, which really was a cool scene.

It was just one in a string of encouraging small wins this week--little victories that are so important in a job full of challenges.

They're welcome little blasts of awesomeness, like the plot twist in the novel another student is working on, where the heroine, who recently found out her Dad is Lucifer himself, finds out he's really not that bad a guy.

Then there's the student in my QR group (quantitative reasoning) who's been getting tripped up when multiplying, dividing, and adding fractions. She's been getting discouraged. But she doesn't give up, and on Wednesday she got all of the review problems right. Maybe, like those students who ploughed through the PSAT last week, she's learning that you have to plough through failure in order to get to success.

And there's another student who just got a new job as a nutritionist at a nursing home--a job she got connected to through her internship at a hospital.

And then there was that student who almost let an earlier conflict with a classmate get the best of him just before he headed out to his internship, but made a decision not to let it get in his way, stood up, set it aside, and had a great first day.

Wow--and then there was Gallery Night--our version of open house, in which families come to the school and students present what they've been learning so far.

Our small building was standing room only, guests munched on delicious hors d'oeuvres some of the students had made, and I could sense the engagement of everyone there as I delivered the opening remarks.

Later, it was refreshing to see students explaining their work to their own families and those of other students.

Strong family involvement is one of the "ten distinguishers" of the Big Picture model of education, and with good reason. It really does take a village.

But those small wins were much needed, because this week was not without it's challenges. Some of these, of course, I can't discuss in a public forum due to their sensitive nature, but I thought I'd share one.

It involved a student who has a bit of a history of conflict with staff and who was refusing to do what I had asked. My first, gut reaction was to be offended, worry about appearances, and feel the need to exert my authority, threaten with consequences and punishments, and force compliance.

But I knew that wouldn't accomplish anything worthwhile.

I knew what was really needed was to identify the problem and help move the student toward better interpersonal and intra-personal skills.

It's very challenging to work this way. It would be easier to just deal out a punishment (even though that's not my style), because that wouldn't take the thought, time and effort of coming up with a more positive, proactive, and productive plan. It wouldn't require difficult, protracted, ongoing conversations about real change and restoration (and it wouldn't go against that stupid urge to retaliate--where does that come from, anyway?).

But that's what this is all about, isn't it? It's about restoration, not retaliation.

Every small win is a step toward the restoration of every student, the reconciliation of their relationships, and the realization of every student's potential.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

College, the PSAT, and the Depot

This week at the Depot, seven of our 28 students took the PSAT test. Here are ten reasons why I made it a priority to have such a large percentage of our students take the test:

1) When asked about their goals and dreams, 76% of our current students mentioned some form of college.

2) Roughly half of the students who have graduated from the Depot since its opening in 2008 have gone on to some form of post-secondary education. I'd love to see these numbers increase.

3) I'm excited about alternatives to college, but on average, workers with a bachelor's degree make 1.6 times as much as those with only a high school diploma.

4) The so-called "soft," non-cognitive skills and the 4 Cs are the skills that are most essential for success in life, but these won't get you into most colleges without the math and language skills that standardized tests measure.

5) While some educators believe many students are simply not "college material," I don't. I see learning as exponential, not linear. And even if IQ is 50% genetic, it's only 50%. While disadvantaged students may be way behind their more advantaged peers, in many cases it's only because they are lower on the exponential learning curve.

6) During my morning commute, I've been listening to Whatever It Takes, which tells the story of Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children's Zone, and I've been inspired by their goal: that every single one of their inner-city students will go to college.

7) And this is the key. The key is believing in the tremendous potential within every one of our students. If we send a strong message that we want to prepare them for college, they will know we believe in them and have high expectations for them, whether they choose college or not.

8) I was so proud of them as they took that test on Wednesday. It's not easy to sit for a 3 hour test that includes algebra, geometry, and many challenging reading passages, but they attacked it with a growth mindset and perseverance.

9) Practice makes perfect. The average student's SAT score goes up 40 points every time he or she takes the test. These students will be taking the real thing in the spring, and this experience will prepare them.

10) Lots of people are all up-in-arms against standardized testing these days, but we need to measure students' abilities in order to know if what we're doing is working. We can't work towards improvement without evaluating ourselves.

So here we go. I'm hoping the message to my students is clear:

This place is about your success.

We believe in you.

And we expect great things from every one of you.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Continuously improving without constantly criticizing

Last week, two of our teachers were in my office talking about a new activity they were wrapping up in their advisories.  It was designed to check the students' progress half-way to their first Exhibition of the year, and it seemed to be working. Students were definitely more aware of where they stood, and how much they still needed to do.

I had liked the idea the week before, but I had become concerned about how long it was taking, so I spoke up: "My only question is, are we spending an inordinate amount of time on this?"

As if I really needed to nit-pik at this point.

Unfortunately, it was only the most recent example of me crossing over the line that separates actually supporting improvement and just being overly critical. It happens when I forget that continuous improvement doesn't come through knee-jerk criticism of everything I don't like, it comes through careful investigation and collaboratively taking one or two high-leverage actions at a time.

Interviewing a student
I'm grateful to my staff for being patient with me so far as I poke, prod and subject them to my "EntryPlan:" 39 one-on-one interviews with students, staff, and parents, three student surveys, three focus group questions, attendance reviews, requests for data, student work reviews and a month of engagement measurements.

It's all been a necessary part of my effort to get a good handle on where we are as a school so that we can be systematic, scientific, and intentional about improvement. But I know it's been a bit taxing, so the last thing I need to do is add unnecessary criticism on top of all that.

I can genuinely say my staff has done a phenomenal job over the past 7 years. The Depot is a place where students get more than a second chance: They find a home, a family, a school that works for them, and a place to pursue their interests, find success, build self-esteem and master the key skills they'll need for the rest of their lives.

But as in any school, there is lots of room for improvement. No matter how good we already are, as long as there are students here who haven't yet maximized their potential, we have work to do. I truly believe every single individual human has tremendous and unique potential, just waiting to explode, and I want to help make it happen for EVERY student (and staff).

This is a BIG task, and making it happen is going to take a deliberate, scientific approach, a lot of data collection, a lot of work, and a lot of courage. It's going to take us ruthlessly scrutinizing ourselves, not to judge or criticize, but to look at the data together and come up with one or two powerful ways we can improve, implement changes, and then repeat the process.

Meanwhile, remind me when I forget the difference between continuous improvement and constant criticism, and hey, let's enjoy the process together. Because improving yourself is actually lots of fun--it's challenging and fulfilling and can work right into an even bigger goal, like improving the world.

Let's be the change...

Friday, October 9, 2015

The Power of Teenagers

When I wrote about Alexa Curtis a year ago, in The Power of a Teenager, I didn't know half of her amazing story.

-Started blogging about fashion and the struggles of being a teenage girl at 13.

-Was making $50 a week doing social media work while she was my sophomore biology student.

-All the while, pushing through criticism from peers and teachers and blog commenters on her weight, looks, and dreams of writing for a magazine, modelling, and working in the fashion industry.

-Then fighting for her desire to drop out of public school and get her diploma online so she could persue her dreams.

-And then that call from Rachel Ray that changed everything.

-And the thousands of emails, 1 reply for every 100 she sent, but that 1/100 that landed the TV appearance.

-The bold self-introduction to a Cosmo editor that ended with her writing for the iconic magazine.

-Her self-developed expertise in social media, from Instagram to LinkedIn.

-How people ask her today who she knew that got her into the industry.

-And her answer: No one.

-That what got her there was her passion--a passion for fashion and for empowering other young women, and her persistence--a relentless and inexhaustible determination that would send hundreds of emails for one reply, sometimes 5 to the same person that wouldn't be answered until a year later.

-That passion that burned bright before a room of students this morning, reaching out to them, caring about them, pushing them, and inspiring them.

-That passion that engaged them and brought several to the front afterwards to meet this amazing young woman--their peer.

Alexa reinforced for me today something I've been thinking about this week.

She reminded me of the absolutely tremendous potential of every single human being and every student under the roof at 85 Depot Road in Mansfield--that explosive power inside them that needs only some mysterious spark to set it burning with a fire so bright it burns through every obstacle.

It's sitting there like a pilot light, just waiting for the gas to turn on.

Alexa is evidence.

Every Depot student is evidence: every student who has already done more than their too-high ACE score predicts they should, whose successes in internships, exhibitions, and in-depth writing assignments already defies their whole history in education and troubled home lives.

The sound I heard as Alexa spoke was "Boom!"

I'm excited to see what these kids can do over the next few years, because I know they can.

And it also reminded me of the essential power of belief--belief in yourself and your own potential and the power and potential of every individual around you.

It's a belief echoed in Daniel Pink's book, Drive, when he discusses the two fundamentally different views of humanity: Type X and Type Y. One sees all humans as essentially inert without external motivation, and the other sees them all as essentially creative, powerful, and internally motivated.

Which do you see? Which will you see?

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Family, radical acceptance, and embracing failure: Week 5 at the Depot

The coolest thing about the Depot is that it really is like a family. The way one student put it, it's just like a family, complete with the bickering, people who like to complain, and people you like to hang out with. In fact, the most common strength of the school mentioned by staff and students is close, caring relationships between staff and students.

There's an image in my head from this week: two students huddled around a third who came to school seriously out-of-sorts. They're all squatting on the ground trying to find out what's wrong, looks of genuine concern on their faces.

And there are other pictures: images of a radical kind of acceptance many of the students have for their peers who may have poor hygiene or other issues that might make others steer clear. It's a kind of love that doesn't even seem to notice, but embraces them and seems to understand. I'm guessing it comes from having gone through  excruciating struggles in their own lives.

I was feeling irritated with one student who came in with a seriously bad attitude one day this week, until another student explained, as if to defend him, that "he was just grumpy because he was tired." It may seem silly or naive, but it fits with Chip and Dan Heath's powerful principle from Switch: What looks like laziness is often exhaustion.

I didn't get to that part of my pick-me-up talk Friday morning, but it was a slide I needed to remind myself of this week: When dealing with people...

1. Assume the best.
2. Seek to understand.
3. Have the conversation.
4. Compromise.

Yep, our "family" has it's share of conflicts. The student running up the stairs on the warpath, looking for the one who did not clean up the smoothie jar, was just one instance of the ongoing struggle with messes in the kitchen. But we're all a work in progress. When you're working with people (including yourself), your work is never done. Progress is sometimes slow. It takes relentless, never-give-up effort.

I feel like the kitchen crew could become a really powerful way to teach healthy eating, leadership, science, math, while strengthening our community. Messy counters and piles of dishes in the sink may seem to threaten that dream if we don't expect failure and embrace it as part of the process.

We had a "tribal council" meeting Friday and asked the students to think of rules or policies to solve the problem. At first many simply said, "Clean up your own mess!," until I reminded them that that was the current policy, and it clearly wasn't working "and when some thing's not working, you don't keep doing it. You change it." They came up with some good ideas we're going to try out, but I'm sure this isn't the end, and that's OK, because it's worth it.

Some of the bumps in the road will come from me. Case in point: I enjoy helping students explore their interests, find their passion, and pursue internships they might like, but I forget that these students have histories, advisors who know them better than I and may have developed other plans with them. It's hard to admit mistakes, and criticism is hard to take, but I need to embrace it, just like failure, just like every other step along the path to a goal. Challenges, effort, patience, failure, acceptance, small wins, joy, relief, fear, exhilaration, disappointment, exhaustion--all steps along the same path.

Every challenge or goal we hash out as a staff, every tough conversation with a student or parent, is a step. I love the steps we are taking toward measuring student mastery, clarifying our roles, building our relationships, and just improving the lives of these kids, and I love becoming a part of this family.

As for more failure? Oh, I know it's coming, but bring it on.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Controlled burns and catching what needs to be caught

The Depot Crew
During my administrator prep program, professors and administrators often warned us of the danger of reactive leadership--becoming so overwhelmed by crises that your entire job becomes nothing more than putting out fires.

One day last week, I had planned to start the day with some 1:1 interviews with  students, then check my messages, visit an advisory, and work on some internship or volunteer coordination and student database management. But that was not to be.

The Big Picture model of education is for every student, but many of the students at the Depot come from very difficult backgrounds and struggle with the repercussions of their histories. On this particular morning, as I sat down at my desk after Pick-Me-Up (our daily whole-school meeting), a student walked in with and started to unload some very heavy stuff that had been happening in her life. She needed lots of support. And it was no wonder she had been struggling with motivation.

After an hour well spent with her, I had to step out to deal with another sensitive student issue, and on my way there, I walked into an escalating argument between two students that required my intervention.

All of this within the first few hours of the morning.

One month into my new job, and I could give 4 weeks-worth of similar examples of serious, high priority, sensitive student issues that have to be dealt with carefully, thoroughly, and immediately. I could give example after example of lengthy, worthwhile, but immediately necessary difficult conversations, check-ins and counselling sessions with students and parents and outside support personnel.

And all the while I'm being peppered with mini-crises and administrative issues: purchase orders that have to be submitted, required forms, phone calls, questions from students and staff, meetings, etc., etc., etc.

And then there's the internship and volunteering coordination, memos and agendas, presentations I give, Book Teams, QR (Math) Groups, and fitness (Dance-a-thon) sessions I run, and lots of instructional, motivational and relationship-building conversations with students, staff, potential mentors and volunteer sites, and parents.

I really do love it all, but somewhere under all of this is my Entry Plan--my plan to interview every staff member, student, and parent, and collect data on school climate, level of rigor, student engagement, and curriculum so the whole school community can improve.

Volunteering at WAIM
I'm probably about 25% done with my Entry Plan, but it's hard to keep a grip on this part while crises blow toward me like debris in a hurricane. The cool thing is, these real crises are truly important and meaningful, and if we deal well with them, we'll be naturally moving toward the end goal--strengthening the students, school and community. The challenge is to make sure that happens and that we don't get so overwhelmed that all we can do is react, rather than pro-actively making these crises part of movement toward the goal.

I had the chance to meet Big Picture Co-executive Director Andrew Frishman yesterday (along with Chris Jackson, BPL's communications officer) and he talked about the importance of doing controlled burns to prevent wildfires. We need to make sure we're doing lots of "controlled burns" in our schools.

Another challenge is to recognize which of these crises flying by are real, and need to be caught, and which we can just let fly us by while we keep pushing slowly, but steadily ahead toward the goal. People need to be caught, carried, counselled, and cultivated until they conquer their own challenges and come out at the other side whole and powerful and fulfilled. The papers and forms and procedures... We'll do the best we can, but it's the other stuff that really matters, after all.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

The restorative work of the Depot: Reflections on my third week

The illegal fire pit we were charged with disassembling.
 It's not the kind of thing you just do and it's done. When people are your product, it's always a work in progress.

That's the big thing that's stuck in my head this week, after my third week at the Depot.

We had some really cool wins this week, beginning with a great time moving big rocks with a trail crew. As we disassembled a fire pit someone had built "illegally" along the trail, we worked hard together, accomplished our goal, and as we cleaned up beer bottles, ended up chatting about college parties, drinking, and date rape.

Students are gradually getting themselves set-up with some pretty cool job shadows and internships, and they cooked up a very successful breakfast of pancakes and eggs on Friday (though I hadn't bought enough eggs). And the dance-a-thon fitness class option we held on Friday in the big room was a big hit, with 8 or nine students dancing for nearly the entire hour to dance music played from YouTube.

But there were also challenges. My vision of discipline is not to punish, but to restore and support. When there is conflict between students, anti-social or unsafe behavior, rule-breaking, or whatever, my vision is that instead of some punishment or penalty, I would say, in effect, "Congratulations, Suzie, you've just been enrolled in our intensive relational/behavioral support program. Let's start with a chat about the best ways to deal with conflict, treat your peers and advisors, drive your car in the parking lot, etc. And then let's come up with a plan for how you will learn how to improve in this area and demonstrate that learning. And let's make sure we check in together every week to see how you are progressing."

At this point there are already several students who have been "enrolled" and are on my list for weekly follow-up, and I am realizing that consistency and persistence will be the keys to success in this approach. To really support and restore will take lots of time and effort.

After we disposed of the fire pit.
I found out this approach is called restorative justice or restorative discipline, and  I'm looking forward to researching it further. It looks like I'll have plenty of practice, and I'm looking forward to that as well. It's in this gritty, raw world of real conflict, struggle, and conversation that that lives are really changed, theirs and mine. And that's what's so challenging and rewarding (at the same time) about this job.

Most likely, the fire pit will come back. I'm told it's been disassembled by town personnel before. But that's OK. We'll be back next year to clean it up again. Life, and humanity, is like that.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Sweet potato soup and velociraptors: Reflections on my first full week

Students walking around with mugs of this delicious sweet potato soup, getting ready for our celebratory, end-of-the-week outing. Four of them had made the soup, under Ellen's direction, part of what I hope will become a regular occurrence. Earlier in the week, they made fruit smoothies, hummus, and avocado-based chocolate pudding.

Learning to plan and cook nutritious food could be the foundation for so much growth and improvement in their lives, not to mention the community-building power of sharing food together.

It was a hearty meal after a week of hard work at the E. O. Smith Depot campus, where school doesn't look much like school, and learning looks like a cup of soup. It looks like a student-led pick-me-up meeting in the morning and students brainstorming projects with their advisors, peers, and me. It looks like parent-student-advisor-director Learning Plan meetings meetings. It looks like students researching potential internship sites, making phone calls and sending emails to potential mentors, planning projects that will meet their learning goals, including math and science. It looks like students designing monarch butterfly habitats. It looks like students walking town trails, painting blazes on trees and pruning back branches. It looks like Gabe and Max.
When Gabe and Max started working on the Lynch Landing trails, they seemed kind of bored, working on one section of the trail for what seemed like a bit too long with their loppers and swatting at weeds with sticks. Then I went back and showed them the safe way to use a machete and brush hook (and told them a couple of horror stories I'd heard about surveyors who were injured with similar tools). Soon, Max was attacking a multiflora rose with the brush hook (which looks more than a little like a medieval weapon). He hacked at it steadily until the invasive plant was completely gone and disposed of, roots and all. Only an empty space of soil by the trail was left.

Then we moved to the lower meadow. The weeds down there are as tall as me and cover several acres. It is prime velociraptor habitat (I was glad it was daytime), and we needed to cut paths to the patches of milkweed for the monarch butterfly project.

Gabe started cutting a new trail through the velociraptor habitat in the lower meadow while Max cut a path from the meadow to the river bank through a hedge of brush with the brush hook. Before long, they had put in a solid hour of strenuous labor, were soaked with sweat, and used the word “adventurous” to describe the experience.
All the while, Izzie had been working like a machine, cutting another path through the meadow with a simple pair of loppers until she had 30 feet of trail right down to the dirt. And she cut carefully around the milkweed plants, which she had learned to identify.
All of this in 90 degree heat. 
And without pay.

And by their choice.
It’s so cool to see students learning the satisfaction of productive work, work that adds value and helps out the community. And on top of that, they learned the proper way to use tools, identified some plants, learned about the priority of safety, and built their team.

The next morning, I gave a revised version of my "Potential" talk, which tells the story of Ben Franklin and other awesome people who started working on their goals as young people. Then I gave them each a pad of paper and asked them to write a goal on each of four pieces labelled Dream, Long shot, Maybe, and Probably: their Dream for their life, a life goal that was a long shot, but could happen, a goal that might happen, and what would probably happen. Reading some of their responses almost brought tears to my eyes--some of them have such obstacles in their lives, but they also have real goals.
And that's what this place is about, and why I'm here--to help them reach their goals, develop their potential, and find their purpose. And that's how it works--by tapping into their natural motivation and providing a learning environment that's a better fit for human nature, one with close-knit community, real food, real work, real conversations and real adventure.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

A different kind of school: The first three days.

Identifying our personal core values in advisory.
Wow. Three days in, and I feel like a puzzle piece trying to fit together with all the other puzzle pieces (while all of us are moving around on the table), but it was an amazing week.

First, it was amazing to see the kids RUN off the bus on the first day of school, one girl screaming and almost jumping into her teacher's arms.

And it's been such a privilege to start getting to know the students. Often, they just drop into my office, other times we just stand in the hallway and discuss college trips, work, possible internships, family issues, project ideas, or bad habits.

I've also been working with one of the advisories every morning before their real advisor arrives, and then just sitting in on other groups later in the day, and it's fascinating to see the goals, hopes, dreams, and interests of these young men and women.  In one group, they were discussing what they each would be interested in working on for their Trimester I projects. The lively discussion ranged from from genetics and gene switches to helping disabled children and building "tiny houses." I can’t wait to see what they do this year. This is how real learning happens. It starts with students' interests and passions. This is why I wanted to join the Depot.

I gave a little talk on "Purpose" on Day Two during "Pick-me-up" in the morning. It was so cool to see students listening intently and connecting with my story and message as I told about my childhood challenges and how finding a purpose helped me pull out of a downward spiral. It was so cool to see how many wrote about their passions and about helping others, but there were a couple of students who seemed to react negatively to the talk--there were two blank pages for the purpose brainstorming activity at the end. There is so much need here. So much pain and turmoil inside and at home in so many of these students. But I continue to be amazed and delighted to see the real care and concern the staff have for every one of these kids. That’s why this place works.

On Friday, our Town Hall discussion was awesome. Several students spoke out about how we should handle students going outside during the day. It's so powerful to make everyone a real part of decisions that affect us all.

In advisory that day, we went through some of the suggested discussion questions from Richard Light's piece on “How To Live Wisely”--questions like, "Would you rather be really good at one thing or pretty good at lots of things?" All of the students participated actively. They disagreed. They discussed. And then they identified their personal core values from a list of 150. It was powerful to see them choosing things like honor, adventure, laughter, loyalty, self-worth and inner peace.

And in the midst of all of this was a barrage of issues and procedures and phone calls and emails and appointments and meetings and OMG-how-am-I-ever-going-to-get-a-handle-on-all-of-this? But then I bring the focus back where it belongs amidst the barrage: The young people in this place. Teenagers never cease to amaze and fascinate me with their depth and promise and energy, and these students are no exception. It promises to be very challenging and tremendously rewarding to be a part of this evolving puzzle of people we call "the Depot," and I'm excited about the coming year.

Friday, August 21, 2015

A new adventure

We had barely gotten the kayaks off the trailer before our incoming students had scattered to the four winds on the lake.

What a great time getting to know these awesome and creative students!

I am so privileged to be a part of such this unique learning environment we call "The Depot."

I can't wait to get to know these students, and their more veteran peers, this year, helping them to find their passion and purpose and overcome the obstacles in their lives. I'm so glad they have this Big Picture school to flourish in--a place that's more than outside the box--a place where "there is no box."

And I am looking forward to working with the great team of advisors (teachers) and staff I have here. Pulling everything together for this outing was a bit complicated. The trailer, kayaks, and vehicles were all in different places, with different owners, and the ball hitch was the wrong size and the electrical connector was too short and the students were all nervous, but this team's dedication was amazing. I may be called the "Director" here, but I'm just part of an awesome team.

And by the end of our 4 hours together the students had cleaned up two watermelons, chatted up a storm, thoroughly explored the lake, tried to catch fish (barehanded, with the help of granola crumbs), collected garnet sand grains, made new friendships, strengthened old ones, and launched what I think is going to be an awesome year.

It promises to be an adventure for me as much as for them: an adventure in learning about ourselves, each other, and the world, learning new skills, confronting old and new challenges. I'm under no illusions that it will be easy, but I'm looking forward to it. And I'll be relying heavily on my team, plus my mentors, Brad Martin, now of East Bay Met, and the admin. at E. O. Smith. And that's what it's all about--life's an adventure, and we're all in it together.