Concentricity by Fred First
I am quietly optimistic now after years of despair about the state of our education system. Could it ever be renewed so that it could meet the real needs of its kids and of society. Now I know that it can and I found this hope right in front of me burning quietly in a small rural school here at home on PEI.
If it can begin here in such a place....?
Until this week, I have found it hard to be optimistic about school.
So many children find the traditional approach numbing. In some schools, most of the children leave without the skills to make a living in today's world and are also turned off by the idea of learning. Look at it this way - up to 80% of the "Product" of a school is waste. Wasted lives. School is in effect a ranking system that puts most kids in the dustbin of life and hardly prepares the "Successes" for the dynamic world that now confronts us.
I often wake up at night and wonder how we will survive as a society.
What makes me and so many others even more depressed is that no one has offered a realistic way of making the changes in process and in culture that are essential.
Much of the current effort to make the system better is in testing. Testing the wrong things. Driving even more exclusion. Many thoughtful teachers are themselves in despair. They know that there is a deep flaw in the system but don't know what the can do to make difference. The system, is too big for an individual to change and has too much built-in inertia for even a well intentioned shift from the top.
I received an email from such an exasperated teacher the other day: -
"I am a high school vice-principal who struggles every day with the hypocrisy of the existing education system and wonders if anything can be done from within?"
But after a wonderful meeting last week - I am not so sure. I am not so sure now that hope is lost.
I came away with a nagging feeling that what I had found - so simple - could work in any school that had a desire to do better. It costs no money, it just demands an open mind and a desire to do the right thing - to serve all the children in the school. To give the kids that get labeled "Problem Kids" the Trusted Space, and hence the environment and the opportunity, that they need to become the wonderful people that they can be.
Here is the staff of Englewood school in Crapaud PEI (OK let's get the name out of the way - It is French for Toad - the early French settlers must have encountered a lot of them).
I had been moaning to Gord McNeilly at UFIT about my concerns about not knowing how change could happen in schools, when he told me that I had to meet Randy Reardon - Randy Reardon is the Principal and he is the one who is sitting on Santa's lap.
"Check Englewood out Rob - there is something special going on there." So I called Randy and asked if I could drop by. He agreed on the condition that I understood that this was not his story but his staff's.
So this Monday I walked into Englewood school for the first time. There was a buzz the moment I got through the door.
Randy and Kent Butler, the Acting Vice Principal, (Kent is standing in for Lynn Hufnagel the Permanent VP who is on Maternity leave and who has been a major force behind what is going on here) took me into the library. I had no idea what the story was going to be - all Gord had told me was that I would get excited.
In short, the staff at Englewood had seen what was in front of their eyes all the time. That by grade 7, a growing number of "regulars" were becoming the "Cooler Kids".(My Term not Englewood's)
From Grade 7,8 and 9, it became increasingly cool for a student, if he was struggling, to show that he did not care rather than he could not do. 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.
Englewood has found some simple ways to break this vicious cycle and to replace it with a virtuous cycle.
First of all, they reconnected the kid's behaviour back to the parents.
"No one outside the school was accountable for the behaviour. The kids and the parents were exempt. It was an ever-escalating and losing battle. The more we put the kids into detention, the more they misbehaved and the pool of problem kids became larger. The parents had no idea what their children were up to and the kids had no consequences, other than a rise in status, for what they did. We the teachers and the school owned it all."
So what did Englewood do?
They gave both the problem and the opportunity back to the kids and they set up an entirely new set of incentives that is driving a virtuous cycle.
How did they do this?
First of all they made sure that the kids knew that their parents knew day by day if they had crossed the behaviour line. If you had misbehaved, you had to take a note back to to your parents describing what you have done and have your parent sign it. Well of course, at first, this got a lot of parents cross. "What my sweet Johnnie etc" Or "Isn't discipline your job?" But the parents are coming round. Especially because of the second, and I think the most important, new process of creating self-responsibility.
"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.
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.
We have 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 form room and who are not habituated by the classroom norms) whose job is coach. (Host/Facilitator - the heart of the design for creating Trusted Space!). 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 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 the 7,8 and 9th grades into 5 mixed teams of 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 happening. 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?
I think so and I hope to return to tell more of their story as it unfolds.