The tragedy of most kids at school is that over time they get disengaged and discouraged.
THE question in my mind is how do you prevent this from happening. How do we keep most of the kids engaged?
I went to Englewood School 3 years ago to find out what they were doing. This is what I found then.
Here is the problem in a nutshell. From Grade 7,8 and 9, it became increasingly cool for a student, if he was struggling, to show that he did not care. So in this Cool Context, detention became a club of the cool and the cool attracted more and more kids in to a world of Status of Cool Mediocrity.
The normal response to bad behaviour, or failing to do work, was more detention. So a vicious cycle had been set up, especially in grades 7-9, where the hormones and the insecurities of teendom have most of their power.
It seems that this Culture of Cool Mediocrity is the social cancer that can Tip a school into a major problem.
Englewood has found some simple ways to break this vicious cycle and to replace it with a virtuous cycle.
They looked at the Social Conditions and came up with a Social Design to Counter the Social Problems
If you are a regular reader please look back at the earlier post about Harrow and see how close the two schools are in both their problem appreciation and in their solutions
Here were the problems as seen by the staff - the quotes are from Randy Reardon - the Principal.
The Age Cohorts are too tight - "One of the aspects of the design of a modern school system that never feels right is how we enclose kids into a narrow age range. Only in the last 100 years have children lived in tight age ghettos. It is so easy to fall into a social trap when you are confined to the same small group of kids all the time. Englewood has grades from 1-9. Children are in the same very small group for 9 years. It is easy to get stuck in a role or have a label stick for the formative years of your life."
"Another design flaw is that all the power issues are between the teacher and her students. The students can and often do gang up on her. They certainly take no responsibility for either themselves or each other. Their learning and their behaviour are her job not theirs."
Class size is too big - "Finally, classes also tend to be over 25 - sometimes 30 plus - making social cohesion very hard to achieve even under the best of circumstances. So we are trying a very simple experiment that deals with all three of these environmental issues that affect the student.
The Big Idea - Create Tribes that cross the age group - That are moderated by staff outside the power lines - that are designed to help kids help each other
To address the already disengaged "We set up 2 teams of about 10 students each that are the "Cooler Kids" (My term). (Note that this team size fits into what we know about the ideal social size for bonding - Magic Numbers) Each team is drawn from all three grades 7,8 and 9.
Each team has a teacher leader (The Principal and the VP who don't normally teach in the class room and who are not habituated by the classroom norms) whose job is coach. The job of these teams is to work as a group to help each other do better as individuals and then of course as a team."
So I asked how this Change is working. As I said the C word, Randy and Kent (Kent Butler The VP) recoiled. "We hate the Change word. It just gets in the way. Everyone hates Change. We Adapt and or we Grow at Englewood. We also define Success broadly.
We set some ground rules on Success. This is not simply about getting a mark. What we are looking for is a new habit of real learning and real cooperation. If you learn how to learn and you learn the value of helping each other - then you will be educated!
We want our "Cooler Kids" to experience the thrill of being successful rather than to glory in being mediocre."
"So what are you seeing now?" I asked.
"These teams are new. We just started this before Christmas but the other day T came up to me and beamed "I got 88 in my math test!". His friend jostled his way to the front to tell me that he had just got 81. Both had struggled to get over 40 before. I have had requests recently to stay on at school so that a group could work something out together! Cool kids asking to stay on?"
Something is happening.
Randy, Kent and Lynn and the staff were intuitively using nature's deepest principles to create an environment where schools can become what they need to be for our future - places where our children can grow into their best.
I reacted immediately to this idea of interactive groups that extended beyond the grade. As we talked about how well this works in other areas of life, they told me about a even newer experiment
"We are extending the idea of the multi-age classroom. We had been having a problem with PSI - the Peaceful School Initiative. This is the one period in the rotation that is not academically focused. It is a response again to the behaviour/citizen issues that we and other schools had been having. Here the ideal is to discuss social issues in the classroom.
But of course no one in the class knows how to have a conversation. Who ever heard of a class of 30 kids and a teacher having a real conversation? Everyone felt very uncomfortable.
We asked ourselves - how could we make this more meaningful?
So we broke the 7, 8 and 9th grades into 5 mixed teams of about 12 students each (Again they have naturally gone back to Magic Numbers - the norms for the most effective social groupings for humans)
This has just started as of last week. But even the first week looks good. We are bringing in outsiders from the community to lead the conversations. So Wade Lynch lead a talk on discrimination. Someone from Bluefield High School came to talk about what life would be like at High School. Someone from UPEI talked about University and a Mountie came to talk about drugs.
It was in the words of some students - Awesome! We had for the first time real conversations about issues that mean something.
I was puzzled. How did this small school of only 215 students in a tiny rural community get so far in their thinking and in their ability to act?
I asked this of Cathy Cairns who has worked to support the Principals for 17 years, who is herself a graduate and whose children are also graduates. I wondered with her whether being such a small school rooted in the surrounding community was itself a helping factor.
It is fashionable to believe that small schools are "Inefficient". There are many who wish to close all the small schools.
Cathy made the case that small schools offer a better overall environment. Small may not be as efficient in using the buildings but it seems to be much more effective in delivering the more important social aspects that support human development.
"Everyone knows everyone here. All the staff are very close and are good friends and all the staff know all the kids and all the parents. There is no disconnect that I found later at high school where it seemed that everyone was too busy to know or to care."
I asked about the effect of leadership.
"The team at the top make such a difference for good or not. This is a young team and they are so open. Open not only to ideas but on to the staff. I feel that we are listened too. Everyone has had a say.
"What about the community - are they involved? I asked
"Oh yes. The school play that is lead by Peter Bevan Baker has become a community highlight and Jennifer Brown is helping make art very popular. Many people feel that it is OK to come in here and help."
What about the kids themselves? I asked
“There is much more interaction across the ages here and we all know each other. In high school it was easier for kids to fall between the cracks. Less easy here"
More adult eyes on the kids outside as well? I ventured
"Everyone in the community knows everyone and there are eyes out all the time."
Cathy's answer reminded me of the late great Jane Jacobs whose insight was that closely knit communities could use the social power of Eyes on the Street to police the neighborhood. Was this happening here I asked myself?
As I left the library and Cathy, I returned to the front door. The kids were leaving to get on the bus.
Randy was standing in the doorway in his shirt sleeves, it was bitterly cold. He said goodbye to every child who left. There was much jesting and joking. Then I left too - wondering had I stumbled into a place where magic was happen- ing. Might there indeed be hope that regular folk who have the insight and the trust of each other can do great things in a small place?
Nothing that Randy and his staff have done has cost more money. Everything that they have done can be done by another school. Most of what they have done has been done by Harrow. These feel like principles to me.
What if we talked more too each other about what is working and built on that?
I am going back to Englewood soon - Randy tells me that things are going well and we will catch up and see what these early experiments have evolved into now - watch this space!