Coda: Do a little / Learn a lot

Success is moving from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.

--Winston Churchill

 

As we've seen, reflection-and-revision play a key role in our pedagogy. If these practices--weekly one-on-ones; looking at the data in realtime--are as useful as we keep telling the students they are, then we should expect them to work at a program-wide level, too.

 Spoiler alert: they do.

 

I. Reflecting on Reflection-and-Revision

At Prep@Collegiate, our work is driven by two basic imperatives:

1) to build & protect the 'container' in which high-achieving students get the chance to thrive, and

2) to not give up on any of our boys.

Sometimes, these imperatives align perfectly; at others, they pull in different--even opposing--directions. For us, that has meant a need for constant reflection on what we're doing, and frequent course corrections.

We began this summer with a collective effort to establish our shared norms & expectations for behaviors and attitudes--in short, our program's culture--which were articulated in a clear rubric.

The wrinkle, of course, is that such articulations are always, by nature, aspirational. 'Culture' is a notoriously slippery notion; people often use it to mean whatever serves their own purposes (e.g., the persistent & pernicious notion of a 'Culture of Poverty' that is used to mask systemic racial and economic injustice). One useful distinction is between 'prescriptive' and 'descriptive'--the former describes how someone thinks something should be; the latter relates to how things actually are.

It'll come as no surprise that these two are not (ever) identical.

The onus is on us as teachers and mentors to help our students come to terms with this relationship--to turn it to good purpose, as an opportunity to model a host of positive behaviors & traits (like reflection, humility, and a willingness to start fresh with the benefit of lessons learned).

 ***

Two weeks into the program, it became clear that the students' expectations of themselves were not yet aligned with the actions and attitudes that they had articulated while crafting the Five Core Values rubric we made on our first full day together; it was also clear and that more specific directions and expectations are called for, as we worked to help all of our students succeed.

Over the weekend between weeks two and three, we reached out to families--some directly by phone, and all of them by email--to let them know that there were conduct-related issues that needed to be addressed, and that a number of our practices and guidelines were shifting to better meet students where they were.

We began week three--the second half of our program--with a hard restart. Our goals were twofold:

1) to communicate our (shared) expectations as clearly as possible, and

2) to get the students, as a community, to take ownership of the issues a hand.

Our morning assembly--typically a brief affair; just enough to start the day on the same note together--ran a full 45 minutes, as students read aloud from the guidelines. Teachable moments abounded: we worked through vocabulary & syntax-level challenges; students supported other students who were particularly struggling with reading; and we paused to clarify lexical & semantic ambiguities as they arose.

Changes to our day-to-day included things like:

- treating access to personal electronics during breaks as a privilege to be earned, rather than a right;

- reassigning students who are struggling with assigned work to a study hall in the afternoon (instead of our other co-curricular activities, so that they could receive additional support; and

- implementing an incentive program, in which faculty and staff dispensed 'tickets'--redeemable for crew-level prizes like dress-down days--as team members narrate positive actions and choices.

Morning classes went well. When we came back together for lunch, we asked the boys to discuss (in crews) how they were going to show us that they were ready--and then to share out the solutions they'd reached.

We expected a 20-minute event. It turned into a two-and-a-half hour discussion. For round after round, students kept rephrasing elements of the rubric they'd established two weeks earlier: specific behaviors they would really do this time.

Their solution, in short, was to try to make their problem our problem. 

Finally, they started arriving at solutions that didn't rely on surveillance from staff... one of the boys suggested a'buddy system', in which they worked in pairs throughout the day to help each other stay on point, and to help each boy hold himself accountable to his own commitments. They came up with a way to choose partners (a 'draft', with the order of selection based on a lottery--with the rest of the group voting to approve the selection), and they crafted guidelines & a series of questions for buddies to use to check their progress.

It was an exhausting process, but a productive one.

Tuesday was a strong day inside & outside the classroom--even the boys who found themselves in study hall, getting caught up on work, responded pretty positively--right up until the end of the day, when things unraveled a bit. Once again, what should have been a brief conversation turned into a protracted affair, as we waited time and again for the boys to collect themselves and reengage. Finally--about 20 minutes past our normal dismissal time--we put it to a vote: did the boys think that we, as a group, were ready to go on the field trip to Washington, D.C. the following day? Could we represent our school and ourselves in a dignified manner?

As a staff team, we were reasonably confident that the boys would respond in near-unison, and with an emphatic 'yes!'. But when the votes were counted, they'd decided by an overwhelming (18-3) margin that they were *not* ready. We sent them home on a low note, and we were concerned about morale; we resolved to start anew the next morning, with a clean slate--and the opportunity for the boys to try again to earn a rescheduled version of the D.C. field trip.

At morning announcements on Wednesday, we were as transparent as possible--we told the students that we'd been surprised by their decision, but that we respected their candor, as well as their willingness to reflect on their behavior. We also told them that we were 100% confident that we could close the gap between where we were, and where we needed to be--so confident, in fact, that we'd worked into the night setting up a do-over version of the trip, slated for the following day.

The boys rose to the challenge--and you can see for yourself how we spent that Thursday


II. Practicing what we Preach

There've been great lessons in this for all of us. For my part, I was too focused on a static vision of the program to see what some members of the team were already responding to in the classroom: a critical mass of the students simply weren't in a position — developmentally — to manage these expectations, and translate them into behavioral choices. I'd started the summer by telling parents that we were going to handle any conduct issues in-house, and that if they received a call from me, it probably meant that their boy's summer with us was over. It sounded like a strong, clear commitment to helping the boys hold themselves accountable independent of parental discipline... in practice, though, it left us with only minimal recourse to some of our most effective partners.

But once my too-rigid (prescriptive) commitment to expectations for the boys' independence yielded to the (descriptive) realities of our existing culture--that is, once we met the boys where they were, rather than where we wanted them to be--all sorts of new possibilities opened up, for students, faculty, and staff alike.

In sum: we are confident that this summer offered an excellent education for our students; we are certain that it brought with it extroardinary learning opportunities for us. As we look back on our time together, we gain immensely from the lessons of this inaugural session...  and we couldn't be more excited about our plans for Prep@Collegiate 2018!

Hope to see you there.