Archive for February, 2012

Call out the posse!

Recently, someone asked me what can be done to inspire uninspired kids.  He wasn’t referring to low income, troubled students who no longer see future value in education, although that question haunts educators too.  Instead, he was addressing the boredom and disinterest many well-off, inherently bright students express even in state-of-the art learning environments.  I didn’t have a quick, simple solution for him.  Instead, I shared the story of a student who fit this profile but who gradually began to learn from me because she wanted to learn for me.  As a teacher, I focus on those elements within my capacity to control – my ability to build an authentic relationship with a student.

But I know that there are other means of addressing the apathy many students feel, solutions that will require an imaginative and collaborative response from the school community, not simply the actions of a single teacher.  Personally, I believe the starting point should be the focus on the word “relationship.”

Today, I read an opinion article in the New York Times titled “Beyond SATs, Finding Success in Numbers.”  The essay chronicles the work of Deborah Bial who in 1989 started the Posse Foundation.  Working at an after-school program for New York City students, she encountered a former student, “bright” and “successful,” who had dropped out of an elite college because he couldn’t succeed without, as he explained, “his posse.”  He needed a core group of individuals on whom he could rely and with whom he could relate.  He needed relationships.  In recognition of this need, Bial created her foundation.

As the article explains, “From her work with students around the city, she chose five New York City high school students who were clearly leaders — dynamic, intelligent, creative, resilient — but who might not have had the SAT scores to get into good schools. Vanderbilt University was willing to admit them all, tuition-free.  The students met regularly in their senior year of high school, through the summer, and at college. Surrounded by their posse, they all thrived.”

The Foundation has become a huge success.  Currently, 40 colleges offer scholarships to the 600 “posse” students selected annually from eight different cities.  These schools clearly recognize a diamond in the rough: although Posse Scholar’s median combined SAT score is only 1056, exceptionally low compared to the median score at the colleges they ultimately attend, 90% graduate, half on the dean’s list and a quarter with honors.

Of course, in the end, it’s not the professors, facilities, or the academic opportunity that ensures their success.  It’s the support they gained from their buddies: “The posse was key.”

I shared this essay with my husband this morning who had just returned from a 5 am grueling run in the rain with his own posse, a core group of friends who maintain a hardcore exercise regimen.  He said there’s many mornings when he’d just as soon stay in bed, but a posse member’s text forces him to throw off the covers.

I think about the makeup of my own posse, those individuals who challenge and shape my thinking about education, who encourage my professional pursuits and bolster any flagging spirits.  These individuals have been critical to my success, and hopefully I, theirs.

Bial’s Posse Foundation is such an imaginative, unique response to a critical problem.  I think there are ways for schools to address the apathy many students express.  Perhaps, we just need to round up a posse and develop a new plan.


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Last week in our English department meeting, we wrestled with the question, “What is the mission of the English department?”  While I suspect some in attendance groaned at the prospect of engaging in such a philosophical discussion, I think these conversations are more than relevant; they’re essential.  Missions ground and guide us, acting as archers’ targets to focus our intentions and to measure our efforts.   Teachers, departments, and the school itself should each have missions – individual and overlapping.

Our chair wrote on the board, “To read, to write, to think,” offering a starting point from which to generate our conversation.  I found myself reflecting about what should be the appropriate order of these infinitives.  Why should we begin with reading?  How should we teach reading?  And if we don’t teach reading, what will happen to our thinking and writing?

As any teacher can attest, students are reading less and less.  Studies bear this conclusion out.  On average, Americans age 15 to 24 spend almost two hours a day watching television, and only seven minutes of their leisure time on reading.  That’s a troubling statistic only if you value reading.  So what is the value of reading?  What will be the consequences for our nation and for us as individuals if reading goes the way of the eight-track cassette?

In my English class, I have a bulletin board where I’ve posed three essential questions in large type: Why do we read?  What should we read?  How should we read?  The rest of the board is covered with index cards publishing the students’ responses.

Answering the question of why we read, one student responded, “We read to escape our reality, to travel to another place and time, to assume a new identity – all to experience life from a new perspective.”  Reading offers, as Kelly Gallagher describes in Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading And What You Can Do About It, an “imaginative rehearsal” for life. Yet, in To Read or Not to Read (National Endowments of the Arts 2007), the most comprehensive survey of American reading ever completed, researchers discovered a “calamitous, universal falling off of reading” beginning around age 13 and carrying through the rest of their adult lives.  A new generation of adults is entering the stage of life with little preparation.

Gallagher argues that schools are to blame, primarily because they don’t place the students at the forefront of the questions of what and how should we read.  Students shouldn’t always be told what to read; instead, teachers need to provide material that is accessible and relevant to help make the students want to read.  When I taught 8th grade English, my students were always reading two books: one we studied together in class chosen by me, and one they read that captured their own personal interests.  In a year, students read over 15 books, a number many students don’t achieve throughout all of high school.

But teachers also have a responsibility to show students how to read – how to use the novel as an “imaginative rehearsal” for life.  As Gallagher emphasizes, “We do not want our students only to read stories; we want them to read novels to make them wiser about the world.” To that end, the teacher should choose novels that provoke questions, insights, and opportunities for transfer.

Consider the novel To Kill a Mockingbird.  A colleague of mine once told me that she taught the novel without any reference to racism.  I’m not sure I’d see the point, especially when we have so little opportunity, “rehearsal time,” to engage with students.  And, let’s be honest, the novel’s theme is racism – how it moves insidiously from the personal to the institutional, sometimes through intention but more often through apathy.  The novel offers students insight into the segregated world of 1930s Alabama, but it also challenges us to examine racism in the world the students inhabit.

Gallagher offers topics to introduce as students engage with the text:

  • “In Blink, Malcolm Gladwell describes an experiment in which a group of people made up of blacks and whites trained to negotiate buying a new car.  The potential buyers were all the same, were all dressed the same, and were all instructed to present themselves as college educated young professionals.  After negotiating at 242 car dealerships in the Chicago area, the results were stunning.  ‘The white men received initial offers from the salesmen that were $725 above the dealer’s invoice.  White women got initial offers of $935 above invoice.  Black women were quoted a price, on average of $1,195 above invoice.  And black men?  Their initial offer was $1,695 above invoice.'”
  • “In 2008, the Maryland state police settled a ten-year ‘Driving While Black’ lawsuit stemming from a pattern of pulling over African American drivers on Interstate 95.  In one survey, 77 percent of blacks felt that racial profiling was pervasive.  In addition, 72 percent of African American male drivers felt they had been stopped because of their race (U.S. Department of Justice 2000).”

As the novel expresses, Tom Robinson is an innocent man; yet, the system pre-judged him from the start.  Asking the students to examine how and why things have changed or have not makes the novel relevant and offers them an opportunity to become “wiser about the world” and their roles in it.

Over the next few months, I will be working with a group of educators to create curriculum units for six to eight canonical works of literature that examine these texts through an ethical lens.  Sponsored by the Center for Spiritual and Ethical Education, the project will hopefully provide educators means to teach these works in a way that transcends their study in the classroom so that students recognize that, in the words of one of my students, “we read to understand ourselves and the world in which we live.”

I’ll end this post with a quote and a poem by individuals who understood the power of  language.

There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
This traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of toll;
How frugal is the chariot
That bears a human soul!
– Emily Dickson
What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.
– Carl Sagan

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All In

Over coffee off campus this afternoon, a colleague and I discussed what distinguishes management from leadership.  A Giants fan, he shared a blog post he read that morning on the website UltimateNYG.com: “From 7-7 to Super Bowl Champs: Behind the NY Giants Turnaround.”

After a three game skid in November, the Giants employed a consulting firm, Afterburner Inc., founded by a former US Air Force Pilot, to guide them in organizational improvement.  The group taught the players and the management (the team) “how to review game tape in a constructive and positive manner though a ‘nameless, rankless’ tone.”  The goal was to teach the team how to trust and empower one another. Offensive lineman David Diehl explained the benefits of the program, “there is no better person to watch film with than your peers. Football is so much about accountability and selling out for the guy next to you. You don’t want to let the guy next to you down. When you can watch film as a group, people can stand up and say, hey, that was my mistake, I was responsible. That leads to a belief in one another.”  He adds, “When a team thoroughly discusses each other’s contribution to the execution of a task, they come to know each other and understand each other’s unique challenges and obstacles. They uncover the complexities that challenge them and learn how better to assist each other in managing those challenges.”

Afterburner employs a “debriefing” method that ensures that teammates recognize that they are “intimately connected and responsible for the outcome” of the team’s central mission: wins.  The debriefing demands that players and management continually examine a few central questions:

  • How long can you survive the repetition of the same mistake?
  • What good does it do to have members of an organization contribute to a project or planning effort and then have no connection to the outcome, no part in the post mortem?
  • How can individuals measure themselves? Groups?

As a result of this process, teammates were able to critique themselves, each other, and even the coaches, employing a “nameless, rankless” tone. Embraced by the team, “the Debriefing process provides an appropriate means of putting the past behind us, learning and growing from it, and moving on. And, when debriefing is performed regularly, it keeps the organization focused on the present and the future rather than the past.”

It’s important to remember, though, that the Giants employed Afterburner’s process because Coughlin, the team’s head coach, recognized that he needed help.  The article explains that, acknowledging that he wasn’t connecting to his players, Coughlin asked Kurt Warner, a one-time Giants player, to “go home and make a list of all the things you think I need to do better as a coach.”   On the list was the suggestion,  “rather than just make rules and enforce them … show the players why a certain rule is important.”

So getting back to the coffee house discussion that prompted the Giants’ story, Coughlin made the switch from management to leadership, and the critical element that engendered that change was Coughlin’s recognition of his own vulnerability and his embrace of humility.  He stopped trading in the currency of power and instead leveled the playing field, so to speak.  He acknowledged that every member of the team is essential to its success and that only by empowering the players in the planning, process, and the outcome could the team truly get behind its playoff theme – “all in.”

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To blog or not to blog…

Yesterday, I introduced my English 9 students to blogging.  Using their own vernacular, students will create a blog similar to a diary or journal written by one of the characters in Romeo and Juliet.  I modeled the process for them, composing my own as Lady Capulet:  www.ladycapulets.blogspot.com

None of the students had ever blogged before or understood why people blogged, so we began with that discussion.  I gave them a little mini lesson on the history of blogging:

• 1994: college student Justin Hall creates first blog ever (Links.net); I remind my students  that the young are always one step ahead of the rest of us when it comes to innovations.

• 1999: Blogger rolls out the first popular, free blog-creation service, the one most of my students will be using even though I encourage them to try WordPress or Tumblr or anything else their hearts desire.

• 2002: Heather Armstrong is fired for discussing her job on her blog, Dooce. “Dooced” becomes a verb meaning “fired for blogging.”  This is always a fun conversation.  Quickly assuming the voyeuristic spirit sometimes latent in blog readers, the kids want to know what you’d have to say to get fired.  This introduces the irony in blogging.  It’s not exactly like writing a diary because presumably we wouldn’t want anyone to read our diaries, and we do generally want people to read our blogs.  After all, it’s exciting to have an audience, to have people care about what we are thinking and expressing. It’s a form of democratic publishing that allows us to share our thoughts, even ones we would typically keep private.  And for that reason, blogging requires self-control, maturity, and good judgment, something Heather Armstrong didn’t have ten years ago!

• 2004: Merriam-Webster declares “blog” the “Word of the Year.”  You know you’ve hit the big time when you become a “word” in the dictionary!

• Today:  Blogs are now ubiquitous.  Celebrities blog, educators blog, poets blog, athletes blog, newspapers blog, kids blog.  There are over 100 million blogs roaming around in cyber space, and over a million posts occur daily.  So this little post will be one in a million!

I explain to my students that I created this assignment so that they can learn how to assume a character’s voice and also because I hope that they too will one day blog for pleasure.  A few of them shrugged, wondering what they would ever want to blog about.  I told them that they may not have the desire now, but blogging provides the outlet for future inspiration.  I showed them my 20-year-old daughter’s blog:  www.enterwithabandon.com  If anyone had asked my daughter when she was my students’ age if she would ever create a blog, she would have laughed.  A private, circumspect young woman, she’s always been very careful with her online identity.  Yet, recently she took up blogging to express her passion for cooking.  I wanted the students to take a look at her website because it reflects an authentic voice.  After you read a few posts, you get a sense of who she is: witty, natural, affable.  Yes, she takes after her father.

I was happy to discover that the students are excited about this assignment.  They quickly turned me off and turned their computers on.  In ten minutes, I walked around the room to discover a background template of an old Italian monastery with the title “Inside the Mind of Friar Lawrence” and an English garden of pink roses reflecting Juliet’s inner world titled “A Rose by Any Other Name.”  The rest were busily engaged in creating their own separate stories.  A good day in the classroom. Happy blogging!

Interested in the rubric for this assignment, just email me: hollychesser@gmail.com.

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