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.