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.