Education from Inside and Outside: What is community service?

Many schools have community service programs. The idea of service to others is appealing to parents who want their children to grow up to be generous. Many parents demonstrate service to their children by volunteering at the hospital, at school, at a soup kitchen, at a food pantry, and by philanthropy.

cans

How can schools truly teach their students to serve? Often the first thought students have when considering the idea of service is to raise money for a charity. This particular kind of service, philanthropy, is relatively easy for many American children to accomplish. They identify the charity they want to support, and then they ask their parents, relatives, friends, and neighbors for a donation. Sometimes they get their parents to bake or help them bake, and then they sell the baked goods. Sometimes they pledge to read books or walk a certain distance in return for contributions. The result is raising funds for programs that the students are excited to support. I would argue, however, that this is only superficial service. A deeper and more meaningful service requires action and personal sacrifice.

I worked for ten years with a master teacher who understood service in a way that goes beyond fund-raising. She took her second grade students to visit the Adult Day Care Center regularly. She took them on the day of the Halloween Parade. She took them with gifts of homemade Valentine’s cards or holiday place-mats. She took them to sing and to perform presentations they had created for school. She made it a habit for them to think about their friends at the center, what those people might enjoy, what would brighten their day. She served her students as much as they served the center, because she showed them that it is important to think of others and not just of ourselves.

Another service project that can be especially meaningful is the “Season of Giving,” in which middle school students identify some activity or action they can do independently that will benefit someone else. Students then commit to performing that action for a certain length of time. At the end of a month, students share their experiences with each other. Some examples of individual projects: raking leaves for a neighbor, taking the trash can down to the street and bringing it back up to the house for a grandparent, writing thank you letters to teachers and coaches, doing chores at home without whining or being reminded, putting up or taking down chairs for a teacher at the end or the start of the day without being asked, picking up trash on the playground, smiling at everyone sincerely and deliberately, starting a conversation with anyone who looks lonely, offering to babysit for no remuneration, bringing in the groceries and putting them away, mowing the grass for a grandparent, weeding the garden – the possibilities are endless, and truly are examples of service to others.

“To be a successful human being is to serve.” – J.E. Rash, founder of Legacy International, the non-profit organization that developed LivingSideBySide®. The LSBS curriculum culminates in student participants working together to envision, design, and execute a service project that will result in a positive change in their community. Students must think of what their project team can do to meet a need in the community. Students are supported by their teachers, but the students are the leaders of the project and are responsible to ensure the project’s success. In this way, LSBS channels the social/emotional and personal knowledge students have gained in the program into action that benefits their entire community.

 

Designing an Educational Program

0098As a person who has spent many hours thinking about teaching and wondering what makes “good” teaching and a “good” school, I have been reflecting recently about how I used to prioritize decisions about the classes I taught and in the schools where I was an administrator. One of the games I often played with colleagues over the years was, “What if we were in charge – how would we do it at our school?” Eventually, I learned to base my decisions on what I thought was best for the children, and that strategy served me well in schools that were already in existence.

Now that I’m retired, I find myself going back to the questions I had when I first began teaching – if I could design a school, how would I do that? What classes would I include? What would the schedule be like? What kind of teachers would work there? How would I ensure that the program would be good for children? I firmly believe that the first decision should be the intent of the program – the outcome of the program should be a best-case scenario for the children who participate. Once I know the desired outcome, then I can determine how best to accomplish that outcome.

I think that the American public education system has put the amount of time needed for schooling as the first decision, rather than deciding first what the outcomes for a graduate of that system should be. Since we have an entrenched yearly school calendar of nine months (although some school districts are experimenting with this), we do our best to “fit in” whatever might be important for our students to know and be able to do, rather than deciding that FIRST and then figuring out how to accomplish that outcome. The curriculum is squeezed and stretched to fit the time allotted to it, running the risk of being fragmented and ineffective.

If I had the luxury of designing an educational program completely from scratch, I would begin with intention: the outcomes the program hopes to produce in and for its students. I would create a graduate profile that describes what students who have experienced the program will know and be able to do by the end it. In other words, I would first determine the mental and moral habits or character; the information and enduring conceptual understanding or content; and the research, problem-solving, communication and critical-thinking skills that the program intends its graduates to possess. Once those desired outcomes are clear, then choices about the academic curriculum, the yearly calendar, the daily schedule, the character education program, the correct qualifications for teachers, and the best instruments to assess the program’s effectiveness, will flow in a focused and coherent way.

To illustrate my point about program design, let’s imagine that you are in charge of designing an academic program and are able to have control over each component. Imagine, for the sake of argument, that one of your stated outcomes is for your graduates to be able to read and write on or above standard grade-level when they finish your program. Now you must make decisions that will result in your students achieving that outcome. You must decide what measures you will use to assess student achievement at the end of the program. You must plan instruction, including choosing instructional materials, pedagogical techniques, and the activities and assignments students will complete. Each of these choices will be driven by what you believe will achieve best results for your students’ reading and writing skills. Because not all students learn in the same way, you will need to have flexibility in what and how you teach, but always with the aim that your students will master the skills you have stated are important. You will need to determine the skills the teachers need to possess in order to be able to deliver the reading and writing program effectively. The school culture will need to be conducive to learning — how will that be accomplished? Your reading and writing program instruction will take time to deliver. You must decide how many minutes per day/week/semester need to be devoted to reading and writing instruction in order to reach the outcome you have chosen.

Unfortunately, in the schools where I have worked, there was rarely sufficient time allotted to program elements to ensure their success. In my experience, many schools have too many desired outcomes (both explicit and implicit) for the amount of time they devote to delivering their programs. Schools often ADD program goals without discarding others, but do not increase the overall time available to deliver the program. Most schools have already decided on the time to be spent before deciding on the outcomes to be achieved. This means that the schedule is always a compromise: most academic courses are trying to accomplish big goals with insufficient time. If an educational program has unrealistic or ill-defined goals and provides insufficient time to complete them, no daily or annual schedule changes can fix that problem.

An exercise in articulating program goals and the amount of time necessary to achieve them could help schools appreciate why their programs are not always successful. I would be very interested to see an educational program with clearly stated outcomes and with a daily, weekly, and annual schedule that is driven by a realistic estimate of the amount of time it will take to accomplish each stated outcome. I am not sure that if I designed a school myself that I would not fall into the trap of choosing unrealistic outcomes. There are so many things to learn, and so many different kinds of learners!

 

1st Gr 017

Education, From Inside and Outside: Building Relationships with Parents

parent-teacher-conference-questions-article-600x400Parent conferences can be stressful for both parents and teachers, because the conversations are high stakes for everyone. Parents are anxious about their child’s progress and also their parenting reputation. Teachers are anxious about their teaching reputation and about whether parents will be angry if the child is struggling in some area. Both parents and teachers are liable to take any cool feedback very personally. What can teachers do to ensure positive outcomes at parent conference time?

Parents and teachers work together best when they agree on what is best for the child. A good way to begin a conference is to establish that the purpose of the conference is to ensure the best outcome for the child. This is a goal shared by parents and teachers. The teacher can move next to list the child’s personal strengths and successes. Parent anxiety drops significantly when they believe that the teacher knows their child as an individual and appreciates their child’s unique gifts. If the teacher has a concern about an aspect of the child’s performance, it will be easier for parents to hear that concern without becoming defensive, if a ground of mutual respect for the child has already been laid.

If there is a challenge that the child is facing that needs support from adults, parents are reassured if the teacher already has strategies in place or strategies to suggest that parents can put in place at home. Children in school may be having trouble academically or socially, and parents worry about both areas, of course. Sometimes difficulty in one area may be leading to difficulty in the other – always turning independent work in late, for example, may be embarrassing and cause a child to lose social confidence.  Most children wrestle with at least one challenge in school. Some children wrestle with many. An effective parent-teacher conference will address ONE challenge thoroughly (one that the adults deem most deleterious to the child’s success). Listing many challenges can be extremely discouraging, and children can really only work on one challenge at a time. If there are several significant challenges, the teacher might say something like, “I have concerns about a couple of behaviors, and I’d like to work with you and your child on this one first.”

Some student behaviors that interfere with a child’s success and are of concern to teachers and parents:

  • Difficulty completing independent work (in school or at home).
  • Not remembering or not understanding new information presented in class.
  • Losing materials or taking a long time to get ready for the next activity.
  • Rushing to complete work, with results that appear hasty or messy.
  • Interrupting.
  • Daydreaming.
  • “Grandstanding” (behaviors that cause all to pay attention to the person engaging in them – singing, shouting, dancing, running, making faces or funny noises – when this causes a disruption to the classroom activity).
  • Socializing with friends during instruction.
  • Mean teasing or exclusive behavior.
  • Not complying with adult requests.

Many reasons exist for these behaviors, and sometimes they appear in clusters. Being precise about the behavior and why it is of concern is the best way to begin building strategies to help the child gain control of the behavior, so it stops interfering with learning. It is very important for teachers and parents to work together on strategies to address a behavior of concern, so that the child gets a consistent message and consistent support. It is also important for the adults to decide how and when to bring the child into the conversation, and will depend on the level of autonomy and independence appropriate to the age of the child.

Teachers and parents will be most successful in working together when they can listen to each other without being defensive. This can be a tremendous challenge.  Teachers who are interested in learning more about themselves and their students tend to be more effective in the realm of parent communication. Knowing that you don’t have all the answers opens you to feedback that may help you work with a family. It also builds trust with parents when you ask for their feedback – what does the child say about school? What happens during the time the child works independently at home? Sometimes the parent and teacher will disagree on what may help a child or on what is contributing to the behavior of concern. A teacher who doesn’t immediately dismiss the parent’s viewpoint may find there is an insight there, even if the parent’s observation or request is unrealistic or unreasonable. When parents believe a teacher knows and cares about their child, they are more willing to listen to teacher concerns with an open mind, and they may discover a teacher’s observation gives them information that they have been unwilling to accept in the past.

The LivingSideBySide® teacher training program includes extensive communications training to help teachers learn how to have a dialogue about difficult issues. For further information, visit the LSBS website:  http://www.legacyintl.org/livingsidebyside/

Education, From Inside and Outside: Building Relationships With Students

DSC_0117

As a beginning English teacher, I was somewhat surprised to discover that not all my students loved to read and write. Once I realized that each of my students brought their own experiences to the table and that each of their personal experiences was just as valid as mine, I improved my ability to teach. I discovered that I could make it safe for them to acknowledge their enjoyment of or distaste for reading and writing by accepting their attitudes without judgment. They began to trust my promise to help each of them learn what they wanted to learn about literacy, either to enhance their enjoyment or to make reading and writing less painful activities for them. This approach to teaching now seems intuitively obvious to me, but after observing many teachers through the years, in my capacity as supervisor, and reflecting on my initial discoveries as a teacher, it seems clear that not all teachers equally appreciate the importance of learning about their own inner lives or the inner lives of their students.

The initial activities of the LivingSideBySide® program open the door for teachers to examine their personal attitudes about both the academic subject and the students they teach. Increased personal awareness leads to both a finer appreciation of the fact that each student has their own perspective and a heightened ability to appreciate others’ unique perspectives and experiences. For teachers who have not previously examined their own inner lives, this is a first important step on the road to connecting with students. When teachers are in tune with their own attitudes and are aware that others’ attitudes may be different and equally real, they are better able to build trusting relationships with their students that will lead to more effective teaching and learning.

Should high schools require students to read the “classics”?

James River Day School Sep 2011

A friend recently sent me a link to an article that suggested we should stop assigning some of the works of literature traditionally assigned to high school students in English class and replace “classic” titles with more contemporary ones that would be more relevant to today’s youth. https://media.bookbub.com/blog/2016/09/01/books-we-should-stop-making-high-schoolers-read/

She wanted to know “what I think?” – I started thinking and haven’t been able to stop. I thought I could write a short response, but the more I wrote, the more I found I had to say. This is probably the result of being an English teacher for 30 years and an avid reader for almost 60 years. For me, the act of reading can be one of the most creative, imaginative activities I have found. I firmly believe that reading “classics” gives one a perspective about what it means to be human that is hard to achieve otherwise. I also believe that requiring students to read books they cannot understand or appreciate is a quick road to extinguishing the fire of literacy.

So what is an English teacher to do? First of all, when developing a literature curriculum and a reading list, one must be clear on the purpose of that curriculum. Is the high school literature class hoping to create avid readers? Culturally literate adults? Literary critics who will thrive as university professors? Depending on the purpose, the curriculum and reading list will be different. Works of literature chosen for required high school reading lists may be chosen to introduce a particularly famous title or author, or to provide information on a particular era or topic. Some works may be chosen because they are beautifully written, others because they have been widely cited. Some works may be chosen simply because they are a short work by a famous author.

A traditional reading list of the “classics” (like the list cited in mediabookbub, which is one sample of a much larger list of literary works considered “classic”) may not have been created primarily to encourage a love of reading, but rather to give students a sample of “the best” of literature. Reading books that were written long ago but are still admired by educated people is partly how students learn the history of literature and important ideas. Students who have read “classics” are better prepared for college literature classes, because they will have background knowledge of works that other writers refer to; without that background knowledge, a student’s reading comprehension is compromised. Unfortunately, if you don’t already love to read and haven’t already developed strong reading skills, it can be difficult to tackle literature from other eras and cultures. Asking students to read books that they are unable to understand because of unfamiliar vocabulary, syntax, or underlying culture will almost surely ensure that they either won’t read the books or that they won’t learn what was intended by those who chose them.

In this age of declining literacy, a primary function of school should be first to ignite an appreciation for reading. Once students love to read, they will be more likely and able to give a work of literature from another time, place and culture a try. The replacement titles in the mediabookbub list were most likely chosen because students will find them more relevant and easier to read. They may help interest students in reading, but they cannot replace great works of literature. Still, they may help to create readers, which is the first goal to reach. So how can we create readers? Start with our love of story. Humans love stories. We like to tell them, we like to watch them, and we like to hear them. If we are fortunate, we like to read them, too! We know that the more you read, the more words you know, the more stories you know, the more names you know, the more you know, period. As you read more, you become a more skilled reader, one who is more likely to understand and appreciate works written in other times and places.

Schools that want to ignite a love of reading set aside time every day during school for independent reading, with so many choices of text in print available that everyone can find something of personal interest. A daily read aloud by a strong, expressive oral reader who reads wonderful texts in a safe and intimate setting is also essential. The study of classical literature texts, like the list mediabookbub says we should replace but which may be one of the best ways to understand what it means to be human, can be encouraged by reading excerpts aloud, followed by civilized conversation. Some students will choose to read the entire work after being introduced, but many will learn as much from the excerpt as they need to know about that author and that work for that moment in their lives, and they may return to the work later in life.

Now that humans have developed video, many think that it is destroying literacy, because it is easier to watch and listen than to read and imagine. There’s no sense in fretting about this. We aren’t in control of the popularity of video. I am a participant in watching film, and it is an amazing medium, which requires tremendous collaboration to create and which can have a more immediate and powerful impact than the written word. It cannot, however, replace the intimate and vibrant inner world created when a reader and a great book connect. What I hope schools will continue to do is to create  avid readers who are willing to take time to savor stories and great ideas. Anyone who has ever been “lost in a book” knows it is one of the greatest pleasures of human invention!

 

Education, From Inside and Outside

Nikitha GraceTwo years ago, while I was Head of School at James River Day School, I paid a visit to a Montessori school out in Bedford County, Virginia. While I was visiting the school, I learned about an international non-profit organization that provides many educational and leadership trainings globally, including one of its key programs called LivingSideBySide®. I was intrigued to learn about their successful pilot program in Kyrgyzstan, an area struggling with interethnic tension. As I learned more about the program, I was struck by how appropriate it would be for American teachers and students. It trains teachers in communication, dialogue, self-awareness, and community engagement skills; the teachers then train their students. The program builds capacity in the entire school community!

As a school administrator, I was enthusiastic to learn about a professional development program designed to strengthen skills for both teachers and students. As I reviewed the curriculum, I got very excited. As a teacher and administrator with 30 years’ experience, I had never seen such a thoughtful program. Now that I have retired from James River Day School, I am volunteering for Legacy International, the nonprofit organization that developed and offers the LivingSideBySide® training. The events in Charlottesville, Virginia in August of 2017 make it clear that the United States needs peace building programs! I am dedicated to helping American teens learn effective social and emotional skills, and LSBS offers excellent training to develop these skills, extending and expanding them into leadership and community engagement activities.

My intention is to write a monthly blog this year, based on my knowledge of the specific needs in schools at certain times of the year, where the LSBS training would provide immediate and effective support for teachers and their students. Look for the next installment of Education, From Inside and Outside, in October on how LSBS can help teachers build strong relationships with students and parents!