Friday, May 13, 2011

Shaping the Future of a Progressive School

Picture this scene on a sunny Tuesday morning at Park Day School:

Six eighth graders, holding IPads in their laps, sitting quietly in the gazebo viewing a webinar on first amendment rights for a unit on civil disobedience. Follow up questions flash on the screen and they upload their answers to the class wiki site.

Sixth graders huddle in the computer lab brainstorming an approach to a new   puzzler on an online math forum as they prepare for an international virtual math olympics.

As part of their unit on Bay Area waterways, fifth graders deploy Google Earth technology to create clay models demonstrating runoff and erosion. 

Four kindergarteners sit at computer stations as an online environment provides them visual prompts to do counting activities. An assessment of their progress is recorded instantly online.

Six goggle-clad seventh graders are guided in safe practices using the table saw in the Maker Center to construct the last structural parts for their robots. The day before, they had incorporated what they had learned from their JAVA programming class. 

After recording the results of their soil tests on a smart phone, two third graders check the timer on the grey water system, which they are using to irrigate vegetables the class had planted earlier in the month. 

First graders show their Bridge-K buddies how to feed the chickens in the mini-farm.

One of the fourth grade classes is in Skype conversation with students in Japan, about to publish their “Buddy Biographies.”

A second grader rings a Tibetan bell, asks her classmates to find their mindful bodies, and leads the class in a mindfulness session.

Innovative technologies, global education, the maker movement, green schools, mindfulness: these pillars of school life in the 21st century are changing the face of the modern classroom. What may surprise you, is that they are all in perfect harmony with the basic tenants of progressive education. 

As a progressive school, Park Day stands to benefit from these changes, though there are times when I have had my doubts. Over the years, we have worried that bringing new technology to the classroom may have an isolating impact on students. The thought of children sitting for hours at the computer sends chills up the spine of the progressive classroom teacher. We crave interaction and hands-on learning, and have cast a wary eye on the technological bandwagon. However, recent possibilities created by innovative technologies have created new pathways for students and the very nature of how students are learning has shifted dramatically.

Social and conversational technologies and on-line constructivist learning tools now include weblogs, wikis, instant messaging (texting), podcasts, and, of course, social media such as Facebook. A student no longer needs to be isolated to benefit from these resources, and schools are beginning to tap in. As the need for direct whole group instruction diminishes, teachers are freed to pursue project-based activities and meet with individual students. This can further our goal of deeply understanding the needs of each student. The most evolved applications of learning technology are incorporating interactive strategies. Students are building personal learning communities and connecting over ideas, projects and concepts. As much as ever the theme is “learning together,” but the “other” may be in a village in India, a classroom in Japan, or kids at another independent school.

As modern technologies make their way more and more into classrooms, the historical role of teachers is reshaped. As teachers learn to integrate technology as part of their natural teaching repertoire, they see these innovations in service to student learning. The emphasis on direct group instruction gives way to the teacher as guide and facilitator. In this regard, the teaching pedagogy in a progressive classroom does not falter or change significantly. When I visit classrooms at Park Day School, I have always appreciated the flow of activity from small group, to independent work, and whole group learning. On the best days, there is a school wide buzz of activity and conversation. Innovative technologies represent new friendly tools to enhance our project-based classrooms and provide new ways for students to take responsibility for their learning.

The maker movement, green schools and global learning are right up our progressive philosophical alley.

In his April 2009 address to the National Academy of Sciences, President Obama implored the assembly, “…to think about new and creative ways to engage young people in science and engineering, whether it’s science festivals, robotics competitions, fairs that encourage young people to create and build and invent – to be makers of things, not just consumers of things.” This past fall, Park Day School held its first mini-maker faire along with the dawning of a “mini maker movement”  here at Park. I see the confluence between this movement and the goals of the president. Dale Dougherty, the founder of the Maker Faire Festivals describes makers as people who “look at things differently and who just might spark the next generation of scientists, engineers, and makers.” In a progressive school we want to encourage tinkering, creating and learning by discovery. A committee of staff and parents are busily crafting a vision for a campus Maker Center, hopefully to be opened next fall.

That Park Day School has become a green school is quite an understatement. Other schools have been calling us to discover all that we have accomplished over the past few years, and to visit the campus. From being named Oakland’s first Alameda County Green School, to the blossoming of our Learning Garden program, the campus is alive with new opportunities for student involvement and learning. The expanded campus has opened many new possibilities. During a recent work party, volunteers worked hard on the mini farm and the pizza garden…chickens are not far behind!

The idea of global education is to hold the vision that curriculum and learning is international in its scope and that schools should be cultivating among the students responsible citizenship in a one-world environment. Our emphasis on multi-cultural education over the years has certainly positioned us well to pursue these goals. Park’s Children Without Borders magazine project is a perfect example of bridging relationships across international borders, as the children from Park build a partnership with students from the Ramallah Friends School. First graders who knitted scarves for villagers in Afghanistan were instantly able to see digital photographs of the individuals who received their scarves. The innovative technologies that we are discovering will certainly help advance this part of the program.

The mindful schools movement is taking public and independent schools around the country by quiet storm. Of course, Mindful Schools was started at Park Day School and most of the teachers on campus incorporate mindfulness into their daily classroom routines. Teaching children mindfulness encourages students to purposefully bring attention and awareness to their present experience. The practice has helped improve classroom climate, student focus and concentration, increase a sense of calm and become more skillful in challenging situation. 

In 1917, Caroline Pratt, who founded the City and Country School in New York City, one of the historically progressive schools, wrote: “We aim to attempt the revision of school practice from the ground up, by discarding at the beginning of our work all the traditional preconceptions that govern the standard practice of the schools today.” I often invoke this quote for inspiration as I realize the job of a progressive educator is to question the status quo in pursuit of a holistic and humanitarian education for the children of the world. 

Ms. Pratt’s words were never more apt as we explore and experience the changing face of education in 2011. That vision of a sunny Tuesday morning, may be closer at hand than we realize. It is our responsibility to make it happen.

Reflections: Tuscon and Childhood

In his Tuscon Memorial Speech yesterday, President Obama spoke of Christina Taylor Green, the nine year old child tragically killed in the senseless shooting last weekend. “Here was a young girl who was just becoming aware of our democracy; just beginning to understand the obligations of citizenship; just starting to glimpse the fact that someday she too might play a part in shaping her nation’s future.” The President spoke of her as a child who saw the world, “through eyes undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted.”

Yesterday I watched the kids on the playground  -each moment of play standing in relief against the context of our times; the smiles, the laughter, the passion of a game – our precious children.   I watched a group of seventh and eighth graders play a game of soccer. The mood was light and the smiles plentiful. No one took the game seriously, and when the whistle blew, no one stopped playing - it seemed as though the kids wanted to hold on to such a sweet moment. After all, they are in this world with us.

Are their eyes undimmed? Or, does the wrath seep in?  How much can we protect their tender innocence from the bad temper of the day? We see by turns unhappy moments of aggressive or hurtful play that make us fear that the cynicism and vitriol have infected the consciousness of our children. We measure the importance of CARE week, as we see so many kids in our school day-to-day try hard to be allies for one another and bring caring and compassionate to their relationships. What a challenge these children face in our complex world.

Living in Oakland, at times a landscape of poverty, crime and violence, our kids are face-to-face with life’s hazards and challenges. In our own city, public officials rarely memorialize, nor do we stop to mourn the many youth who, trying to navigate life on the streets, do not live to adulthood.

I see lots of nice kids at Park – lots of kindness and empathy every day.   As our mission states, we aspire “to prepare students to be informed, courageous and compassionate people…” As the president observed yesterday, the obligations of being citizens in a democratic society are dawning on our children as they become aware of how they will shape their world. We keep our hope even under tragic circumstances, because as the President has reminded us, “we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children's expectations.” 

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Children of Japan

Children are always the most vulnerable in a disaster.

In Japan, more than 100,000 children have been displaced, many separated from their families. Save the Children and other relief organizations are working night and day in the disaster zones and report major concerns about everything from the accessibility of water and food to the emotional stress and trauma being suffered by the children. Many schools are closed meaning the cherished comfort of teachers is not at hand. The love and support teachers can provide to children during difficult times may not be available for a very long time. While Japan is a well‐resourced country, the scale of this disaster would render any region of the world hopeless and defeated.

The staggering tragedy, made even more frightful because of the uncertain extent of radioactivity release, will be borne by the Japanese people for decades to come. But for the children, it will be borne for generations. My parents were born within a decade or two of the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco and I lived my life in the shadow of that disaster. Not just the drills and the sirens of my youth, but the ever‐present trepidation that another earthquake is around the corner. As much as my parents were of the “depression generation,” even more powerful to our lives was that they were of the “1906 earthquake generation.” For the people of Japan, the reminders of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, World War II, and the economic downturn of the last decade all add to the weight of this most recent tragedy.

When something of this magnitude happens, our children are bound to see pictures, hear conversations and have many questions. In this age of instant information, we need to explain things to children. By acknowledging that these things happen, and talking about the ways in which we are prepared to keep them safe, it helps to ease the fear and anxiety a child might possibly be feeling.

As appropriate to the age of the students, our classes have been discussing the situation in Japan and helping the students of Park Day School grapple with their own thoughts and fears about an earthquake. In the Bay Area, we have a greater sensitivity to and empathy for the experience of the Japanese. We have helped the children understand how we are prepared for a disaster, and reminded ourselves of the need for drills and awareness.
We also are mindful of the need for thinking actively as global citizens. This helps children to not only appreciate their own lives, but charity and volunteerism are actual things they can do in face of disaster. Throughout the week we have explored the best ways to respond in support of the victims of the tragedy so far away from us. Organized efforts will be announced as we continue to identify the greatest needs.

As we do so, we remember and hold in our hearts the deep and profound impact that this tragic event will have on the children of Japan now and into the future.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

An NAIS Conference Journal

An NAIS Conference Journal
February 22-26

This past week I attended the Annual Conference of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) in Washington D.C. Actually, the conference was held at the Gaylord Convention Center in National Harbor, a gated area near the capitol that reminded me of something out of a weird Jim Carey movie. Notwithstanding a very non-public venue, the NAIS conference was boldly themed Advancing our Public Mission, and one of the best educational conferences I have ever attended. With five thousand independent school educators in attendance, the conference allowed me the chance to learn from, interact with, and present to other heads of school, and educators from around the country. With a main focus of cultivating among schools a sense of civic engagement and community partnership, I also created my own conference strand best characterized by disruptive technologies, open source learning, hole in the wall experiments, the future of knowledge, and (whoa, get ready) the Khan Academy. Read on for more.

Wednesday Day I – Park Day School in the News

The first day of the conference offers 3-Hour workshops and I was a presenter on the topic of Creating and Sustaining Partnerships Between Public and Private Schools. This was one of the keynote themes of the conference and an area attracting a great deal of interest among independent school educators around the country.  

I was invited to present by Jacqueline Smethurst and David Drinkwater, co-directors of Wingspan Partnerships (Wingspan is a national organization, supporting and advocating for partnerships between public and private schools; I am on the board of Wingspan. David and I were fellows at the Klingenstein Visiting Heads program in 2001 at Columbia TC.)

Park Day School has become a national leader in this area, and I had the opportunity to share the model that has been created over the years by Community Outreach Coordinator, Laurie Grossman (Laurie is on long-term leave from PDS). The session was well received and attended by Jack Creeden, Vice Chair of NAIS. I discovered later in the day that PDS was spotlighted in Jack’s feature article in the latest issue of Independent School (not yet available online). This is the second time the magazine has featured PDS in an article about public purpose.  After the session, Michael Brosnan, the editor of Independent School stopped me to discuss the possibility of submitting an article expanding on the topic for a future issue of the magazine. My particular focus would be on how schools with limited resources can sustain pubic-private school partnerships.

Later that day, I had a long conversation with my colleague Paul Chapman, the former Head of School at Head Royce. Paul is spending his first year in retirement as a visiting scholar at Stanford and his current work has taken him around the country visiting green and sustainable schools.

I also spent time with my good friend Gareth Vaughan, the Head of Indian Springs School in Birmingham, Alabama. Gareth and I were classmates at The Leadership Academy at Colombia Teachers College.  One of the great joys of attending the national conference is running into folks from my two Klingenstein cohorts.

Day II

My first session of the day was presented by Dave Michaelman, Head of the Duke School, on the topic of Reducing Attrition. David heads a progressive school in Durham, N.C., and told the story of how his school reduced its attrition rate by 50% in just a single year while streamlining its re-enrollment process.  One of Duke’s key strategies is to be sure that the faculty and parent body is fully engaged in the effort to retain families in the school from year to year. Communicating as openly as possible about retention strategies means that the community is working together to strengthen the school’s enrollment. Little did I expect to take away so many practical ideas and strategies that I will be bringing to the next meeting of the PDS board’s Retention Committee.

The first plenary session of the day began with NAIS Executive Director Pat Bassett. A strong, responsive, and visionary leader, Pat has made a tremendous impact in his years at the helm of NAIS. Everyone at NAIS tells a story about Pat’s 30-second response to emails, no matter the time of day (Ok, just a little exaggeration, but he is amazing). Pat encouraged me in the early days of our appeal to the California Association of Independent School to drop their requirement that schools administer standardized tests in order to become members (CAIS dropped its requirement in 2009).

Pat framed the topic of the conference in the context of a boomer generation legacy of wanting to have an impact on a greater cause. He noted that independent schools have historically paid lots of attention to IQ, (Intelligence Quotient) but not enough attention to EQ (Emotional Quotient). He asked questions about how we justify the privileged status of independent schools. Reminding the audience of 5000 educators from around the world that students in independent schools in America represent less that 2% of all students in the country, he asked if schools will claim a public purpose sufficient to make a difference in the education of America?  Are we “dithering at the cost of the community,” or can schools  “take a lead in bringing education and society back together?”

Of course, Pat’s comments were music to the ears of an old progressive educator such as myself. One of the fundamental tenants of progressive education is that schools must be agents of social change and must cultivate in our students a sense of agency and commitment to society.

Pat yielded the podium to the conference keynote speaker, Sheena Iyengar, the author of The Art of Choosing. Sheena’s work and research has been focused on the relationship between choice and control, and the choices effective leaders make. She has discovered that effective leaders have the ability to see and capitalize on choice when others do not. She defines effective leaders as self-assured and controlled without being threatening; able to relinquish or distribute control. I am intrigued by her concept of “informed intuition.” While some leaders rely more on either gut or reason, Shena says the most effective leaders bring both to decision-making. Good leaders cultivate shared informed intuition and realize that the group will always outperform individuals.

I had a fun lunch on Thursday with a group of heads from the Bay Area (Eric Temple of the Carey School, soon to be head of Lick-Wilmerding, Abby Koss from Aurora, Virginia Paik, from Live Oak, Mark Silver from Westbook, and the incoming Head of Redwood Day School, John Loeser). Funny that it takes a trip across the country to find time to have a relaxed few minutes with local colleagues.

After lunch we rushed to spend an hour with Sugata Mitra. A past recipient of the Klingenstein Leadership Award, he is a professor of educational technology at Newcastle University in the UK. His studies, which insprired the book Slumdog Millionaire, and often referred to as “Hole in the Wall” experiments, focus on children and the Internet. His hypothesis is that the Internet, computers and children are “made for each other,” with cognitive processes so similar that children need little or no instruction to master computing at the basic level. His current research, which he shared, is leading toward an alternative primary education, using self-organized learning and assessment environments.

Next up was a fast-paced presentation by Mike Walker from Punahoe School in Hawaii on the latest trends in Neuroeducation, which bridges education with neuroscience. Neuroeducation studies brain based learning and reinforces developmental understanding of students. Much of the work is presented in the book, Brain Rules by John Medina and Brain Compatible Classrooms by Robin Fogarty.

The research reinforces concepts that progressive educators have long supported: that students need to be moving around and actively involved in their learning; that play is a pre-requisite for learning; and that mindfulness practice helps students focus. (One of Mike’s slides introduced a packed audience to Mindful Schools, the program launched at Park Day School by Laurie Grossman and her Mindful Schools colleagues). Again, PDS on the cutting edge! 

BTW, I would like to appreciate PDS Learning Specialist Pam Nichols, who for the past few years, has been exposing the staff to similar research and findings.

On the way to the next session, I crossed paths with old friends Anne and Rick Clarke (Anne is the former Head of the Julia Morgan School for Girls and is currently an interim Principal of the Upper School at Fieldston Ethical Culture in New York City; Rick, the former Head of Redwood Day School is fresh off an interim headship in Seattle). Anne and Rick are on their way to Ireland this spring – I’m so jealous.

Dan Heath (Author, with his brother Chip, of  Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die; and Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard). Heath frames his theory on change with a delightful and engaging lesson distinguishing two systems of the mind: one rational, conscious and deliberate, and the other emotional, unconscious and automatic. His metaphor for the two minds operating together is an illustration of a human (representing the rational mind), riding atop an elephant (representing the automatic mind). His 3-way framework for change would have one first direct the rider, then motivate the elephant, followed by shaping the pathway. Yes, it loses something in the translation – you had to be there – or better yet – check out his books!

Following the sessions on Thursday, I attended a reception hosted by Pearl Kane, the Director of the Klingenstein Institute at Columbia Teachers College. The Klingentein Institute supports independent school educators and Pearl annually gathers alumni from her programs. I am a double-alum from Klingenstein having participated in the Visiting Heads program in 2001, and then the Leadership Academy over the summers of 2006 - 2007. Hundreds of "Klingons" crammed into a restaurant catching up and spending time with Pearl, everyone's favorite all-time teacher.

Thursday Evening, Gareth Vaghan and I spent time with another of my Klingenstein colleagues, Amani Reed, the Head of the Middle School at The University of Chicago Lab School, Brian Thomas, Head of the Upper School at Bentley, and a new friend Josie Holford, Head of Poughkeepsie Day School in New York. Josie exposed me to the vast world of tweeter dialogue about progressive education (troglodyte, dinosaur that I am) – I’ll do better tomorrow.


So, what did I do on Friday morning? I succeed in missing the early morning in-person session on blogging, presented by Josie Holford, Michael Ebling, Head of Summit School in North Carolina, and my friend Jonathan Martin, Head of St. Gregory’s School in Tuscon, Az., (formerly head of Saklan Valley in Walnut Creek). Never fear -the power of technology allowed me to pick it up on a you tube clip. Jonathan is an inveterate blogger and tweeter, and has been very encouraging of my new blog. He and his wife Carmen attended the conference and I enjoyed seeing them.

The morning plenary session featured speakers across the generational spectrum: Benington College President Elizabeth Coleman, Educational futurist Anya Kamenetz, and Salman Kahn, founder and sole faculty of Khan Academy.  The presentations were moderated by Katherine Dinh, the bright, terrific young Head of Prospect Sierra School in El Cerrito.

With great depth and intelligence, Elizabeth Colman’s talk and work centers around the broad questions: What kind of world are we making? What kind of world should we be making? And, What kind of world can we be making? She boldly places civic mindedness at the heart of education, and reminds us as educators of the serious responsibility to the health of our democracy, and of our mandate to bring ethical depth to our work. She laments the accelerated failure to educate the vast majority of children and youth in our public schools, reminding us of Jefferson’s admonition, "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be." Her “new curriculum” for our time is centered on six broad areas: equity, health, education, the environment, the use of force, and governance.

Anya Kamenetz, author of Generation Debt: The New Economics of Being Young, and DIYU: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, followed with a brilliant and inspiring talk addressing the questions “What do learners want? What do learners need? And, What do learners deserve?" She introduced the audience to a new millennial generation lexicon: personal learning networks; online symposia; web-based peer learning; open accreditation; portfolios and networks; and data-driven career planning. Whew!! Fundamentally, her message resonates with the a primary goal of the progressive model of education: self discovery. How does an individual craft an education and establish goals to achieve success. And, how does this occur in the context of change, innovation, technology and newly emerging talent?

Salman Khan, managed to bookend this session with a knock-your-socks-off demonstration of his open-education internet resource, the Khan Academy. Over 200,000 students per month use his you tube videos to learn basic skills from arithmetic to finance to chemistry to vector calculus. Khan’s goal is to create a free school, accessible to anyone in the world, and his methodology is transforming the educational environment.  Teachers at Park will greatly benefit from knowing about this resource, and Khan made the connection to progressive education. He describes his efforts as “humanizing the classroom and leveraging the teacher as a resource for projects and interaction.” I couldn’t wait to come back and show the staff.

Finally, the capstone event of the conference on Friday afternoon was an electrifying presentation by Jeffrey Canada, the founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, one of the more compelling speakers on the circuit today. Canada’s message is captured in a simple question: “If not us (the independent school educators in the room) who will save the underprivileged, and undereducated children of our nation?” He points out that the absence of a “master plan” to save the children from the current national educational crisis means that there is no moral or practical compass guiding the way to real recovery and reform. He called upon the independent schools to become aware of the issues that are confronting our youth and to not turn a blind eye to the public schools.

Editorial Comment: For Park Day School, this message drives a major part of our effort to partner with public schools. Laurie Grossman long ago brought this mission to PDS, now a part of our DNA. We cannot ignore the plight of the public schools; we cannot be blind to the major budget cuts that will devastate the teaching profession. More than 90% of the students in America attend public schools. Less than 2% of the country’s students attend independent schools. Our privilege would make it easy to pay no attention to what is going on next door at Oakland Tech, or down the block at Emerson. But we are part of a larger educational community, and we must stand in support and solidarity with all schools.  

The conference was a great success for NAIS, and a personal “best conference” for me. I’ve taken much that I can carry back to Park Day School, and plenty of inspriration.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Great Reads

Last summer I asked the entire staff at Park Day School to read The Reading Zone by Nancie Atwell and we have been greatly influenced by her philosophy about teaching reading. One of the components that is central to her program is to have kids share with one another brief reviews and descriptions of books they have read. I thought I would join in the fun since I know parents have often expressed an interest in knowing what books and authors influence our work.

Last year (and over the past few weeks) I enjoyed several books focused on diversity, education, and child-rearing that I wanted to share with you if you are in the market for a few good reads.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander (The New Press, 2010)

I believe this should be required reading for anyone living in Oakland, California (or thereabouts), where the reality and horror of mass incarceration of African American males appears (or, in some cases disappears) before our very eyes. This new work by Michelle Alexander brings great scholarship to a discussion that can often wane to the polemic. For a progressive school educator (and parent community), interested in stretching to examine questions about race, this is must reading.

The Parents We Mean To Be by Rick Weissbourd (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009)

Hot on the independent school circuit, this book on parenting (and appropriate for teachers) asserts that perhaps our intent focus on our children’s happiness may not be in their best interests. Are kids today overly fragile or self-involved?  Weissbourd’s provocative work helps parents focus on morality – not the teaching of it – but the guidance and encouragement of our children “to deal with the emotions, such as the fear of being a pariah or a loser, that cause them to transgress,” and “to help children develop a deep commitment to…values that can override other needs and goals.” The author brings his own field research to the equation. The book evokes similar messages as those proffered by Alfie Kohn (Punished by Rewards), and Wendy Mogul (Blessings of a Skinned Knee, and Blessings of an A-).

Raising Cain by Michael Thompson Ph.D and Dan Kindlon (Ballantine Books, 2000); Speaking of Boys: Answers to the Most Asked Questions About Raising Sons by Michael Thompson Ph.D (Ballantine Books, 2000), and It’s a Boy: Your Son’s Development from Birth to Age 18 by Michael Thompson, Ph. D, and Teresa Barker(Ballentine, 2008)

Do you have a boy? Do you know a boy? I want to remind everyone of the good works about raising boys by a great friend to the independent school community, Michael Thompson, Ph.D.  As successful as Mary Pipher (Reviving Ophelia) was to raising our daughters, Thompson and his co-authors have created foundational resource books for understanding and nurturing our boys.

Raising Happiness by Christine Carter, Ph.D. (Ballantine Books, 2010)
I sat on a panel this year with Christine Carter at the EBISA Symposium, attended by the teachers from Park Day School and dozens of other Easy Bay Schools, where she talked about her work in helping kids and parents enjoy a more joyful life. In the complicated times in which we live, I hardly need to say more; just -  this book is wonderful!

• The Courage to Teach by Parker Palmer (Josey-Bass, 1998, 2007)
This past Fall, I dusted off one of my favorites as the school year got underway. What inspires teachers and motivates them to bring their passions to teaching? Parents, this book provides insights into the world of teachers. Parker Palmer has an international following among teachers, though his books span a gamut of topics beyond education. Many teachers choose to pursue their careers for reasons of the heart; what happens if and when they lose heart? How do they keep alight the fires of their passions? Palmer speaks to them poignantly.

Teaching the Taboo: Courage and Imagination in the Classroom by Rick Ayers and William Ayers (Teachers College Press, 2011)
Hot off the presses, this book by former Park Day School parent Rick Ayers and his brother, Bill brings in relief the way teachers are grappling with many of the big issues of our time. What I love about the book is its honesty; these brother are wonderful story tellers, ethnographers, and educational activists, not afraid to raise fundamental questions, even about the way our educational system is organized. Buckle up for this courageous book – another wonderful insight into the world of teachers. (BTW, Bill Ayers is one of the country’s foremost authorities and champions of progressive education. I have been inspired by his books and his talks for many years. He is a senior university scholar at the University of Chicago and a school reform activist. Rick started the CAS small school program at Berkeley High School, and is completing his doctoral work; his son Max graduated from PDS in the class of 2000). 

(From a newsletter to parents)

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Is it Bullying? How can we help kids become allies for one another?

I was a college basketball referee for many years, before retiring from the game a few years back.  We were taught a lesson to bring to our officiating that I have found plays out in life: No harm, no foul.  I remember players who would whine constantly and want me to call a foul over the slightest touch; whereas others understood that bumps and collisions were part of the game.  But, we were also taught never to ignore real fouls - the serious, consequential contact that created an advantage for one player over another. 

It is an apt metaphor for teaching kids about bullying and how to respond to hurtful actions. For some kids, it is not easy to make these distinctions, and we need to bring more attention to helping them understand this dynamic. We need to teach kids to understand what behavior is actually harmful, and what constitutes the rough and tumble of day-to-day life as a kid. This is at the heart of resiliency. Where is your child along this spectrum? Can he or she weather the banter and occasional collision? Or, are they sensitive to a fault? Does he or she have a tendency to ignore or look the other way in the face of misbehavior or hurtful actions? How do we respond? How are we modeling for our children? These are important parenting questions. 

In the past two years, the issue of bullying has reared its head in most public and private schools, as the print and television media made it one of the 2010 cause célèbre. Actually, as we all know, the phenomena of bullying is not new to schools, and children, but it is magnified (and educators are increasingly challenged) as demeaning, biting and sarcastic humor dominates our cultural interactive lexicon. The media influences are powerful. Movies, TV and video games rarely reinforce the kind of human understanding, compassion and caring that will help kids develop positive social skills. Instead, children are exposed to gratuitous violence, sexism and shades of other bias, and complex adult situations that are difficult to understand. The influences seem to be working against us. 

The best research on the phenomenon of bullying, and the most comprehensive approach to defining bullying is found in the work of Dan Olweus, Ph.D, who, in 1993, wrote the now famous book, Bullying at School: What we know and what we can do.  The longitudinal research was conducted in Scandinavia and Olweus' work now includes specific program recommendations for schools, and has expanded to cyberbullying and safe dating.

In 2003, I first introduced his work to the staff at Park Day School, and we spent the year focused on how to create a school and classroom climate that could minimize hurtful behavior. This is work that needs to be on-going in a school community, and in the past six months, we have explored some of the programs that have become popular among schools dealing with student behavior, and seeking school-wide consistency in dealing with inappropriate and hurtful behavior.

 It is one thing, when an adults makes an off-handed joke at the expense of a co-worker's haircut or new sweater- it is rarely taken seriously - chalked up as humorous work-place banter. But, when the same type of comment occurs on the schoolyard, all bets are off. For some kids, it is like water off a duck's back; but with others, it may be taken very seriously and sit with a child for days. When the story makes its way home, especially  in the tender moments before bedtime, it may come across as a personally insulting offense. This offense added to others, can cause parents to worry about the incidence of this type of behavior at school. Questions arise about supervision: is anyone watching out for my child? When parents share their stories with one another, the problem can take hold as a school-wide issue and cause wide-spread concern.

Lots of serious questions are on the table for our collective grappling:

How does a school sort through these experiences and help parents understand their context and differentiate innocent schoolyard banter from genuine incidents of bullying? How does a school help students recognize when comments, intended to be funny, are actually hurtful? How can students respond to one another in the face of hurtful behavior, both as recipients and as bystanders? What messages can parents deliver to their children about responding to hurtful behavior? How can teachers create a classroom climate that minimizes the incidence of kids mistreating one another? How do we help children become resilient and able to differentiate light-hearted banter from a genuine insult? 

Let's first look at the definition of bullying from Olweus (see above reference):

"A person is bullied when he or she is exposed, repeatedly and over time, to negative actions on the part of one or more other persons, and he or she has difficulty defending himself or herself."

This definition includes three important components:
1. Bullying is aggressive behavior that involves unwanted, negative actions.
2. Bullying involves a pattern of behavior repeated over time.

3. Bullying involves an imbalance of power or strength.

Many assume that bullies are individuals that have been mistreated in the past, and are taking out their frustrations on the less powerful. This would create some sympathy for the bully, assumed to have been a victim. However, the research indicates other patterns among those who engage in this type of behavior. Again, from Olweus:

Information about bullying suggests that there are three interrelated reasons why students bully.
1. Students who bully have strong needs for power and (negative) dominance.
2. Students who bully find satisfaction in causing injury and suffering to other

3. Students who bully are often rewarded in some way for their behavior with
 material or psychological rewards.

So, understanding this phenomena helps teachers and parents realistically recognize the true bully, as opposed to students who may occasionally act out. Bullying is chronic, and, for the victim, experienced repeatedly over time. 

We are also seeing very recent research conducted by sociologists at UC Davis, finding that bullying is used as an "instrument of social climbing," which may again validate the findings of Olweus that students are rewarded in some way for their behavior - this time with social rewards.

Michael Thompson Ph.D, author of Best Friends Worst Enemies, reminds us: “During the course of a school day there are hundreds of tense moments between children.” In his book, Thompson guides us through a tour of the developmental factors which are involved in children’s social relationships. What we need to remember is that kids' play often takes place at a fevered pitch. If you watch children regularly, you know that play brings vein-popping, emotionally laden expressions of anger, frustration, pleading, joy, and unbridled ardor. With this as the day-to-day backdrop, we know that conflict will arise. 

Children bring varying degrees of skill and understanding to conflict, and in its worst incarnation, attempts to resolve conflict can be devoid of skill, resulting in hurt feelings. In the moment, this can lead to children taking sides, engaging in blaming behavior, and possibly becoming derisive or excluding others. It takes the careful guidance of adults to help children develop their skill at problem solving, especially when play is heated. Some groups of children may include mature and emotionally intelligent individuals who can rise to the occasion and say the "right thing at the right time." But, this is not commonplace as even the most mature kids lose themselves to the maelstrom of the moment.  

We believe that children must develop five key social and emotional skills: cooperation, assertiveness, responsibility, empathy and self-control. In her wonderful book Educating Moral People, Nel Noddings,  Ph.D., argues that "our main educational aim should be to encourage the growth of competent, caring, loving, and lovable people."

Toward that end, one of the most effective strategies teachers implement is to facilitate (and teach children to facilitate) class meetings. These meetings address social issues and help children build a repertory of social and emotional skills. The attempt is to build a climate among the kids where they can work through problems and come to a resolution, without resorting to hurtful behavior. It can take years for a child to come into his or her own in this area; and some never do (we are all witness to the adult world of the sarcastic, the cynical, or the mean tempered).

 Parents are asking for tools to help their children respond to hurtful behavior. One of the most important lessons that parents should convey to their children is to disabuse them of the notion that those who stand up for others are unpopular and lose friends. Actually, we all know that the most admired among our childhood friends were those who were honest and courageous enough to say, "Hey, what you did just then is not cool." Think back - were those the kids who were outcasts? (and, I am not talking about the archetypal "goody-two-shoes," who tattled about every slight that was given or received, no matter how minor). Kids need to learn that standing up in the face of someone being mistreated or harassed will not lose one social currency – often it will produce the opposite result. We know this to be true, but we somehow support our children's resistance and fear of being ostracized. Think: character building means developing the wherewithal to act ethically in the face of social conflict. We need to help children say "stop!" when they are witnessing or subject to hurtful behavior. 

Teach your child to say some version of "That was not cool." Role play it. Yes it takes some courage to stand up to someone who is perpetrating verbal abuse, or leading a charge to exclude a classmate from play, or teasing someone about a physical characteristic. But, this is the first step in us helping to empower the bystanders. Be direct! Don't ignore meanness.

Another strategy at Park Day School, is to bring the incident to a class meeting. Many of the classes have a class notebook where issues and incidents are reported, and then the class as a group takes up the topic during weekly or bi-weekly class meetings. This strategy allows the child to be in the presence of other, sympathetic kids who will support him or her in addressing the issue.

We need to provide other tools of expression for kids to report incidents of hurtful behavior that they may have witnessed. After third grade, "telling an adult" often loses its appeal. Though, there are certainly kids who will not hesitate to let an adult know if they see something inappropriate. But what other ways can kids let an adult know? I often think that letter writing is a great method. Kids often are reluctant to appear before an adult in authority and tell them verbally what they have seen (they would consider it tattling). However, writing a letter to a parent or a teacher can take on a different meaning and be more palatable. Even if the letter is written anonymously, it is a step in the right direction to somehow express your thoughts. 

There simply is no magic bullet - each child develops along his or her own continuum, and these actions can be easier said than done. In the context of one's own family ethos and belief systems, these strategies grow. It takes patience and lots of conversation at the dinner table.

None of this is an argument for tolerating hurtful behavior, and in a healthy school environment there must be a system of discipline and appropriate consequences (a very complex topic for another post). At our school, we rely heavily on the experience and intuition of our veteran group of teachers. We base our work upon the premise that we are helping children become ethical problem solvers, capable of resolving conflict, and that ethical and moral curriculum should be as important as academics. Ultimately, schools need to be places where it is OK to be a nice kid.