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.