Monday, December 21, 2009

The Early Years

The point of impact for Project Coach is adolescence. We are designed to work intensively with teenagers. While our teenagers work with elementary-aged youth in the sports program, the focus of our efforts are on supporting and teaching our teenaged youth.

While I'm clear about why we work with teens, when I read an article such as "Brain Power: Studying Young Minds, and How to Teach Them," which profiles a math-based preschool program that focuses on explicit teaching of math concepts, I think that while teen programs are crucial, these early intervention programs are more than crucial.

Programs like Building Blocks emerge from relatively new findings and insights from the realm of cognitive neuroscience. The premise of these programs aims to accelerate the development of young students’ frontal lobes, improving self-control in class and it appears turning on the brain's ability to engage in more sophisticated academic work than many believed young minds were capable of handling.

After reading the article, several thoughts:

a.  Brain research is changing the way educators understand learning. Kurt Fischer, director of the Mind, Brain and Education program at Harvard had a wonderful quote in the article, “Teaching is an ancient craft, and yet we really have had no idea how it affected the developing brain, Well, that is beginning to change, and for the first time we are seeing the fields of brain science and education work together.”

b.  Early intervention programs focused on poor children can preempt achievement gaps. The data reported in the NY Times article is formidable.  
In math, there is no faking it. Children either know that five is more than three, or they do not. Either they can put number symbols in exactly the right order, or they cannot. In their studies, Dr. Clements and Dr. Sarama test children one on one and videotape the results for comparisons.

Over the past four years, the couple has tested Building Blocks in more than 400 classrooms in Buffalo, Boston and Nashville, comparing the progress of children in the program with that of peers in classes offering another math curriculum or none at all. On tests of addition, subtraction and number recognition after one school year, children who had the program scored in the 76th percentile on average, and those who did not scored in the 50th percentile.
What happens after students participate in these programs? Do they enter into school systems where they experience conventional curriculum that does not build on their math ability? Are these early cognitive gains enduring and result in better capacity, performance, and ability later on?

Project Coach focuses on youth development-- and while there is equally convincing and fascinating brain research focusing on the adolescent brain-- I read an article like "Brain Power" and I'm convinced that the most effective way to address the achievement gap is to preempt it. Programs such as Building Blocks engage and absorb preschoolers in thinking that literally 'lights up their brain' through stimulating literacy and numeracy activities. I suspect that many of these types of activities are replicated through the natural processes of middle class parenting.

The NY Times provides a glimpse of the program in action and while the activity was interesting, it felt like the type of interaction that you see so many middle class parents having with their children:
On a recent Wednesday afternoon at the Makowski center, Buffalo’s Public School 99, Pat Andzel asked her preschool class a question:
“How many did you count?”
She had drilled them on the number seven. She held up a sign with “7” and asked her students what number they saw (“seven!”); had the group jump seven times, counting; then had them touch their nose seven times. As the class finished counting seven objects on a poster, she asked again:
“How many?”

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

21st Century Skills and Teaching them in Classrooms and Programs

How do we operationalize the teaching and learning of 21st century skills? This is a question that I love because it's easy to banter about high-minded ideals, but the real challenge involves transforming lofty ideals into action. We heard a bit of this during our class discussion yesterday in our Youth Development and Social Entrepreneurship class. Our students are developing a charter school proposal and in doing so they must articulate a specific educational approach that they believe will result in student academic and social achievement. We spent some time talking about the promise of 21st Century Skills such as those promoted by Tony Wagner in his new book The Global Achievement Gap. The good discussion we had involved translating the ideals into practice and it generated these thoughts.

One of the skills we've talked about involves the capacity to make decisions. To call it a 21st Century Skills probably is a little absurd since humans have been struggling with quandries, problems, and dilemmas from the time they had a semblance of consciousness. Excuse the smug sarcasm, but I suspect that nomadic hominids struggled with the decision to break camp or head across the plains. Anyway, there is a program out of Stanford focused on 

How do we operationalize the teaching and learning of 21st century skills? As I always I leave class turning over the ideas we grapple with and I wanted to share a few perspectives on this as I believe it will be useful as you develop your prospectus for your charter school.

First, one of the skills we've talked about involves the capacity to make decisions. To call it a 21st Century Skills probably is a little absurd since humans have been struggling with quandries, problems, and dilemmas from the time they had a semblance of consciousness. Excuse the smugness, but I suspect that nomadic hominids struggled with the decision to break camp or head across the plains. Anyway, there is a program out of Stanford focused on teaching kids the principles of decision making. What interests me is the intentional instructional focus on teaching what are often called soft skills or what we call the 'supercognitives' in our Project Coach program. 

Decision Education Foundation (DEF) teaches the process in six steps as described in a well-done article in Edutopia "Decision Making Becomes the Newest Life Science."

  • frame the problem
  • think about what consequences matter to them
  • consider the various choices and alternatives
  • do research to uncover information needed to make a choice
  • satisfy themselves that they're using sound reasoning in making a choice
  • commit to following through.

The focus of the program entails utilizing the above protocol to hash through dilemmas. Students have used decision science to hash through everything from how they might have comported themselves as African Americans prior to the civil rights movement to how best to honor the nation's veterans to how to convince motorists to use seat belts and teenagers to eat healthily and exercise regularly.

I spent some time poking around the Decision Education Foundation web site and looked specifically at several of the activities that they have designed for classroom use. The focus of the activities involves investigating a controversial dilemma, doing systematic research on the issue, developing a position and then engaging in a structured debate/dialogue. 

The challenge is always moving from the tightly packaged and elegant curriculum unit to making it happen on the ground. If a teacher or after school program leader can make this come to life in their setting, it's wonderful stuff because students would be:

a. Taking a stand on an issue
b. Developing a complex position derived from their own value system and from research and information they collect.
c. Develop a plan to influence and persuade others
d. Deploy listening skills that result in them having to respond 

If I were a student, I would be engaged by a process that required me to perform and represent my perspective with coherence. 

We may call these 21st Century Skills, but they are probably more eternal than new age.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Friday's NYC Trip

We are taking about 45 students to NYC to visit two remarkable programs. 

On Friday, we'll be leaving at 6:30 am from John M. Greene Hall.

Our first stop will be StreetSquash which is a Harlem after-school youth enrichment program that combines academic tutoring with squash instruction, community service, and one-on-one mentoring. Here is a NY Times article "Using Squash to Put Youth on the Road to College" that highlights how squash is the hook that involves students in a program that supports their development as people and students. As their executive director says in the article, “Squash is the vehicle. It means more to me to help them figure out a math problem than how to hit a serve.”  Here is a Smith College article detailing a visit by StreetSquash youth to Northampton where they spent time experiencing the Smith campus. Our visit to StreetSquash will allow us to think about the role that after school programs can play in positive youth development.

Our second stop will be Bronx Lab Academy-- a school that I have visited many times. I believe that Bronx Lab is an extraordinary school. The story of how it came to be is inspiring and informative. 

For years Evander Childs High School in the Bronx was a large, struggling high school. In 2004, it had a graduation rate of somewhere around 25%. As part of a national reform movement called the small schools movement, Evander Childs was closed down and reopened as a building that housed six stand-alone and autonomous schools. The concept driving the small schools initiative was based on research that small schools can foster personalized relationships between the adults in a school and students. These relationships allow for more individualized instruction and attention that can result in positive outcomes in the social and academic realms. 

 Bronx Lab Academy was founded by Marc Sternberg, a Teach for America alum (he is presently been appointed by President Obama as a White House Fellow read his bio).  It's worth reading a NY Daily News op-ed that he wrote describing the founding of the school.
The Evander campus was unsafe for everyone. Less than 25% of the Evander Childs High School Class of 2004 graduated. Fewer still applied to college. In the greatest city in the world, Evander Childs had become a symbol of the worst in public education: a school turned into a warehouse of neglect and under-achievement.

Five years ago, emboldened by a mayor determined to reverse a remarkable trend of neglect, the chancellor invited me and a generation of school leaders, teachers and reformers to act. He believed in my ability although I was just 30. He empowered me by letting me make key decisions, including hiring autonomy without forced seniority transfers and moreover a considerably bigger budget.
Thanks to the mayor and chancellor, a band of tireless, talented teachers and hardworking students, 95% of Bronx Lab's Class of 2008 graduated with more than 350 college acceptances and $2.5 million in financial aid
We'll be shadowing Bronx Lab students in their classes. In the afternoon, each Smith student will sit with their high school partner and share a portfolio of college work. The college students have assembled a compendium of syllabi, papers, quizzes, tests, and other college projects in an effort to introduce the high schoolers to what college-level work looks like at a liberal arts college.

Read more about the Small Schools Movement

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Vote for PC and help us win $25k !!!

Dear Project Coach & SSV supporters,

In a groundbreaking new initiative, CHASE are giving away $5m - in $25,000 increments - to non-profits and charities via essentially a popularity contest via vote-getting on Facebook. As you may well know, both Project Coach and SSV work tirelessly in underserved areas of Springfield to deliver educational enrichment and hope for at-risk youth, and have worked side-by-side for a number of years in helping each other to realize their dreams. This funding opportunity offers both organizations an unparalleled chance to obtain significant funds by simply mobilizing their impressive support bases.

Here's how you - in about 30 seconds - help bring us one step closer to becoming winning non-profits:

1. Go to

2. Click to access the "Chase Community Giving" application

3. Become a "fan"

4. Search for "Springfield School Volunteers" and select

5. VOTE!!!


And that is it....done! There won't ever be an easier way to help these two wonderful causes than this! As of two days ago, the 3rd PLACED organization had 87 VOTES!!! We can easily surpass this...with your help!!

Thank you for all of your support,

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Community Schools: Full-Service Settings

What would it take for the youth who grow up in the North End of Springfield to achieve 'escape velocity'?

Today a new research by the Center for American Progress reporst on the impact of community schools was released. Community schools view their mission as an anti-poverty movement and attempt to be a hub in the life of a community and family. They strive to connect with the range of support organizations that can help families thrive.  The report describes them as schools that "partner with nonprofits and local agencies to provide students with health care, academic enrichment, mental and behavioral health services, and other youth development activities without burdening school staff."

Some choice quotes/insights from the report:

Community school partnerships can complement proven school improvement strategies-effective teachers challenging curriculum, and expanded learning time. These partnerships also allow teachers, principals, and staff to concentrate on what’s happening in the classroom with the knowledge that students’ “outside” needs are being addressed.
Recent evaluations of community schools throughout the country demonstrate that schools that integrate student services and a high-quality educational experience have a positive effect on students and their families in a variety of areas including student achievment, school attendance, and parent involvement.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Escape Velocity and Project Coach

In Thursday's class we did an activity where I asked students to find a sentence in Paul Tough's Whatever it Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America. A student immediately raised her hand and said, "The escape velocity section really moved me." She read this section:

 The faster you shoot a cannonball, the farther it would travel before falling to earth….if you shoot a cannonball fast enough, it will actually escape earth’s gravity and go into orbit. The question is what it takes to achieve escape velocity… In communities like Harlem, people tend to think that a single decent program for poor children is enough to provide escape velocity, to give the children the momentum to orbit around their communities and not be damaged. But they’re wrong… the gravity of the community always pulls the child back down. (pp. 231-232)

A wonderful discussion ensued: What does it take for a program or a school to sustain escape velocity? This question came back up at our Project Coach staff meeting on Friday. Do we provide enough boost to our youth to keep them on trajectory for success and college? 

The metaphor challenges all of us who work in youth programs to look deeply at our programs and ask these fundamental questions. 

  • Does our program provide enough boost to the youth we work with?
  • What is the nature of that boost? Are there times in a youth's life when we can anticipate that they will need a boost and what supports are in place to make that happen? We talked about how when high school students get to the age when it's important to think about college are there resources in place to help them negotiate the college application and financial aid process? 
  • When a youth starts to be susceptible to the forces of gravity, is the program tuned into his or her life enough to notice? If they notice what do they do?

Aside from the content of the conversation we had about Escape Velocity, the larger value was the time at a staff meeting to tangle with our hopes and aspirations for our program. At the core, what is Project Coach about? What can we do and what our limitations? The poetry of Geoffrey Candada enabled us to get to a deeper and more conceptual place. I am always struck by the power of poetry to trigger conversations that matter. 

r children reach “escape velocity.” What do you think it takes to achieve this escape veloc-

Monday, November 2, 2009

What can college students do?

A few weeks ago we hosted a discussion on the achievement gap. At the end of the community discussion a parent of two elementary students came up to me and said, "I don't know how parents do it? I'm a college-educated, career woman with a flexible work schedule and I can barely support my two children in their school endeavors. I can barely supervise their homework and project schedule and as they get older, I can barely keep up with the level of their work. I don't know how parents who have less education or less flexible time can manage to oversee their children's education."

Her comment highlights two crucial challenges for parents. First, given the complexity of family schedules-- how can you find the time and energy to stay on top of school responsibilities? Second, how do parents effectively help their children when they don't feel confident or competent in the subjects being studied?

According to a new survey sponsored by Intel, parents described themselves as particularly over matched by science and math. The researchers framed the the issue as parents feeling more uncomfortable talking about drug abuse than math or science with their children. It's an interesting framing of the problem by the researchers. The issue is not that American parents feel strangely capable of engaging their children in conversation about drug use, but that they don't believe they have the confidence or know-how to support their children when it comes to math and science.

So what does this have to do with college and high school students and after school programs? While parents might be decades away from their last chemistry or algebra course, teenagers and young adults are concurrently taking courses in math and science. If we had systems in place that provided these young people with opportunity to support the learning of younger students-- two benefits would be realized.

A. Children whose parents  don't have the knowledge, confidence, or time to help their children with math and science, would be getting help.

B. Numerous studies report that cross-age tutoring benefits tutors. Tutors demonstrate increases in attitude, peer relationship, self-efficacy, achievement scores, and in developing a more coherent understanding of the conceptual ideas at the heart of the material they are using with younger learners. In other words, the truism holds: "to teach is to learn and learn best."*

After school programs can become settings that provide time, space, and logistical support for cross-age tutoring and academic coaching. The apprenticeship model of Project Coach can serve as a model for the kinds of intensive support and preparation needed if 'tutors' are to be successful and derive a benefit from the process.

*See for example, Cross-Age Tutoring for Young Adolescents. By: Thrope, Lynne, Wood, Karen, Clearing House, Vol. 73, Issue 4, which finds that Cross-age tutoring is a form of cooperative learning in which an older student, often one who can benefit from additional reinforcement, is paired with a younger student who may or may not be in need of remediation. Putting students in cooperative groups or pairs has a long history of improving everything from achievement scores to self-esteem to peer relationships."

Monday, October 26, 2009

Malcom Gladwell Would be a Fan of Project Coach

Malcom Gladwell's best-selling books provoke and capture our imagination. From Blink, to The Tipping Point, to Outliers-- he offers us a way to think about how the social milieu shapes the way we think, behave, and plan our lives.  Aside from writing books that get the public talking, he's also been awarded the inaugural Award for the Excellence in the Reporting of Social Issues by the American Sociological Association. The ASA recognized Gladwell's  "rare sociological imagination that illuminates social processes by seeing what social principle they share, that is by discovering unexpected links between disparate situations, links that render deep insights into human interaction."

All of the above is buildup to say, when Gladwell makes an observation about a social phenomenon-- we should take it seriously. This leads to his exciting observation in a Time Magazine interview where in response to a question on the prevailing failure of urban school reform responds by celebrating the core of the Project Coach model, which uses sports principles to guide the teaching and learning that we do in the program: 

Q: You've talked before about the deficiencies of the U.S. public-education system. If you were U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan — who has about $5 billion in discretionary funding and a mandate to fix our schools — what would you do?

There's precious little experimentation in education. Instead there seems to be a desire for greater regimentation, which I think is nonsense. I think we need to try 100 different things. If I were Arne Duncan, I'd think of myself as a venture capitalist, fund as many wacky and inventive ideas as I could, and closely monitor them to see how they worked.
I've always been fascinated by the idea that in inner-city schools, the thing they do best is sports. They do really, really well in sports. It's not correct to say these schools are dysfunctional; they're highly functional in certain areas. So I've always wondered about using the principles of sports in the classroom. Go same sex; do everything in teams; have teams compete with each other. I'd like to try that. I don't know whether it will work, but it's certainly worth a shot, and we could learn something really useful.

We use a games approach to both sport and learning activities in the program. In sports, a games approach is best understood by what it is not. Here is an example: in our program when we want to teach  our novice soccer players how to dribble the ball a conventional approach would be to get players into a line, provide some direct and often didactic instruction (for example, use the inside of your foot to control the ball) and then have the players  replicate your instructions while the coach offers feedback.

A games-based approach would involve the coach setting up a grid and telling his/her players-- each of whom has their own ball. "On my count, dribble around the box, but don't let me tag you. We're playing tag and I am IT!" Quickly and without long and detailed instructions, the coach gets a dribble tag game underway. Players are dribbling the ball around a constrained box and deploying a full-range of crucial technical and tactical skills: dribbling with different parts of the foot, avoiding the defense, keeping one's head up to be aware of other players, and changing direction. Skills, techniques, tactics are all taught through a soccer-like game.

Adapting this approach to the classroom is a little trickier, but we do it. For example, our teams meet with their coaches for a pre-practice gathering we call the huddle. In the huddle the coaches lead a variety of activities such as discussions on sportsmanship or having players think about proper nutrition.  A quick example of a games-based encounter during the huddle involves a 'loose competition' between two teams side-by-side on the field. Each team is given the task of brainstorming and prioritizing a list of healthy and nutritious foods. The two groups vie against each other to generate a list. Importantly, the approach does not necessarily result in higher quality work, but it is engaging, motivating, and fun.

Monday, October 19, 2009

"Flipping the Switch"

In the latest Coaching Academy, Smith graduate student Greg Rosnick talked to our coaches about the ability to "flip the switch" when adapting to different social and academic situations. Using the neat analogy, and a presentation that showed a "day in the life" of his own encounters, coaches were captivated by the notion that they can present in particular ways to particular audiences in effective and productive ways.

The idea stemmed from a Friday morning staff meeting in which we wanted to really stress the importance of being able to "turn it on" when coaching at PC sports sessions. As a collaboration between the "redshirt" cohort, an interactive lesson was devised encompassing not only Greg's presentation, but a series of experiential role-playing scenarios that allowed coaches to feel at first-hand the importance of creating a lasting, positive, impression on those around them.

A well deserved end-of-session dodgeball game capped off a great start to the Project Coach week....

Project Coach Dodgeball Tournament

Project Coach, in conjunction with Smith College, proudly presents its first annual Dodgeball Tournament!!




CHECKS/CASH for $40/team should be dropped off or sent via inter-campus mail to:


Project Coach

Education Department

Morgan Hall, 37 Prospect Street



  • 8 players
  • $5 per player



  • Group stages - Round Robin [each team guaranteed 4 games]
  • Last 8 - Single elimination bracket



  • Set of Championship t-shirts
  • Personalized trophy to be kept for the year
  • "Battle of the Colleges" final championship match vs. Mount Holyoke winners during half-time of the Smith - MHC basketball game @ Smith on December 9th.

Come out, have fun, and support a great Smith College community outreach program!

Project Coach - Smith College

Project Coach - now in its 6th year - is a not-for-profit community initiative founded and operated by Smith College.

Using undergraduate and graduate students, the program trains, teaches, and employs high school youth from underserved communities in Springfield to work as coaches and mentors for elementary school student athletes.

Aside from coaching training, participants receive valuable academic assistance, leadership training, and life-skills curriculum, all focused on making home-grown community leaders in places desparate for positive role-models.

For more, check out our website and event registration:

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Quick Links in Reference to Conversations

Hi folks,
Over the week a number of conversation strands unfolded and here are some pertinent links...

2. Paul Tough on What it Takes to Make a Student-- a piece that he wrote for the NY Times in 2006 that I suspect inspired him to take on the book project involving Geoffrey Canada. The paragraph on vocabulary and language acquisition that was referenced during the discussion on closing the achievement gap.
Researchers began peering deep into American homes, studying up close the interactions between parents and children. The first scholars to emerge with a specific culprit in hand were Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley, child psychologists at the University of Kansas, who in 1995 published the results of an intensive research project on language acquisition. Ten years earlier, they recruited 42 families with newborn children in Kansas City, and for the following three years they visited each family once a month, recording absolutely everything that occurred between the child and the parent or parents. The researchers then transcribed each encounter and analyzed each child’s language development and each parent’s communication style. They found, first, that vocabulary growth differed sharply by class and that the gap between the classes opened early. By age 3, children whose parents were professionals had vocabularies of about 1,100 words, and children whose parents were on welfare had vocabularies of about 525 words. The children’s I.Q.’s correlated closely to their vocabularies. The average I.Q. among the professional children was 117, and the welfare children had an average I.Q. of 79.
For more background on Hart and Riseley's work here is a good summary in the American Educator titled The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3. The American Educator is the professional journal for American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and I've found it to be an excellent read.

3.  The Forbe's article on America's Fastest-Dying Cities. Springfield is on this list.

4.  City Thinks 2009: Springfield Public Forum. Education, Poverty and Hope. We will be attending many of the events including Paul Tough's lecture this Thursday 10/15, 7 pm at American International College. 

5.  2007 Report from the UMass Donahue Institute on Springfield's rank as the sixth-worst city in the nation for children living below the poverty level.

SPRINGFIELD - With troubling implications for the city's future, Springfield ranked sixth worst in the nation for the percentage of its children living in poverty in 2006, according to recent census figures.
The U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey found that 44.6 percent of people under age 18 in Springfield lived below the federal poverty line in 2006. That was more than three times higher than the state's child poverty rate, 12.4 percent, and well more than twice the national rate of 18.3 percent in 2006.

In 2008, Springfield Republican article on the rising poverty rates in Springfield and Holyoke Schools.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Teaching Attentional Control and Listening

One of the formidable challenges that our teen coaches face occurs when they gather their team for a huddle. Anybody who has ever coached knows how difficult it can be to muster the attention of 12 nine-year olds who prior to the summons were ripping around the field with their friends. The old saying holds true, 'that was like herding cats.'

Once the players are assembled, the coach must give some direction or teach something. It's that moment that we focus on as a critical teaching moment. We ask our teen coaches: "When you start teaching, what kinds of behaviors and attitude do you hope your players use in the circle?"

Invariably the teen coaches, will identify all those habits that every teachers yearns for in their students: "I hope that my players keep their eyes on me," or "I hope that they listen carefully," or "I hope they show me that they care what I'm saying."

Their insights are crucial because we are getting the teenagers to articulate and define what constitutes exemplary presence in a classroom or a huddle. The teenage coaches draw on their direct experience  and in doing so they are being asked to consider what type of student/player does a teacher/coach appreciate the most?

At this moment in the process, we strive to connect a chain of insight:

As teenage coach/teachers we appreciate and value those players/students that exercise attentional control with us. We hope our players will make eye contact, listen, ask questions, and respect our team by paying attention.

When I am not coaching, I am a high school student. My teachers at the high school have the same feelings and hopes that I do. They want me to make eye contact, listen, ask questions, and respect my classroom by paying attention.

As you can see, Project Coach strives to cultivate these habits through a model that emphasizes  understanding how others experience our behavior. Our coaches are put into a position where they must 'teach' certain qualities and virtues. Our hope is that through activities, reflective exercises, and feedback they internalize these qualities in ways that allows them to deploy them in other contexts such as school.

Here is an accompanying activity. We take a photo of our coaches during an activity that they are undergoing. The picture captures a presentation by a Smith student who will be conducting a research study on Project Coach. She is explaining the methodology. After taking this photo, I will sit down with the coaches and ask them to evaluate their presence as a student/learner/leader in this photo. As you can see, the attributes they describe as important for their players to possess are being exhibited in the classroom setting.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Presence, Enthusiasm, Energy

"Knowledge is not enough to get desired results. You must have the more elusive ability to teach and to motivate. This defines a leader; if you can't teach and you can't motivate, you can't lead."

Coach John Wooden

As we move into the third week of our sports program, we are still looking for those vital missing ingredients that will continue to push the program forward to the level of excellence that we desire. Inspired by the words of Coach Wooden, we wanted to focus a concerted effort on allowing our coaches to make their "Presence, Enthusiasm, and Energy" felt in meaningful and powerful ways. We pride ourselves on giving our coaches the tools that they need to succeed, and helping them develop the ideas and concepts that will serve them well in their leadership roles. But what use are these ideas and concepts unless they can be delivered in a manner which inspires, motivates, and energizes players? Once in a while, you just have to get back to basics....

On a windswept field late this Monday, 22 coaches were humming, singing, bellowing, and contorting their diaphragms in all other kinds of unique ways to really feel what it's like to exercise a powerful coaching voice. We had talked about it, seen it on video taped footage, and modeled it ourselves, but nothing really says "wow....THAT makes a huge difference" than experiencing it for oneself. After a few more experiential practices - including holding a conversation with a partner at 50 feet - and a whole lot of laughs, it was time to put our new found coaching voices to the test....

Test 1 - Deliver a personal statement before leaving on Monday describing your proudest moment in Project Coach thus far with "Presence, Enthusiasm, Energy"....Result -- A big improvement on the previous week.

Test 2 - Describe today's sports session plan to twelve 3rd graders bursting with energy, in a way that says "I'm a confident coach that's ready to match your energy...and then some..." -- A knockout success!

Seeing coaches make the realization that they can be a coach that exudes "Presence, Enthusiasm, and Energy" - and the added power that this then gives their ideas and concepts - is a wonderful reminder about why we do what we do.

Pitching the Program

Andy, Don, and I met with the athletic director and the head of parks and recreation for a nearby city. They had heard about Project Coach and they wanted to explore a possible collaboration with us. Prior to the meeting, we sent over some materials, a link the website, and several of the youtube videos. We had a substantive conversation and in reflecting on what ensued I was left thinking about how we frame our work in Project Coach

Every organization needs a really sharp, compelling elevator pitch. I don't think Project Coach is there yet. A pitch is concise, simple, and focused. Running a program is the antithesis of those qualities and the nature of our everyday work is complex from the range of outcomes we pursue to the complicated logistics of running an afterschool program. In talking about  PC it's tempting to try and explain everything about PC from how it started, to what we do, to how we do it, to how we understand the outcomes of all the facets of the work.  In reading the above, I think I believe we either need a simpler way to describe our work-- or a simpler program!

In the spirit of trying to learn something from every experience, I find myself turning to that oracle of all knowing: google. I search, "elevator pitch business school" and the first hit is the Harvard Business School Elevator Pitch Builder. The front page reads,

You have one minute to explain yourself, your business, your goals, and your passions. Your audience knows none of these. Are you prepared? Can you present your vision smoothly, enticing them to want to know more?
This will be a good team exercise for us during our Friday staff meeting. Can we collectively build a pitch? What will we learn through trying to sharpen our presentation of what we do and how we do it?

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Be clear on the rules of the game

Bob Hebert ends his NY Times column on the efforts of Bill and Melinda Gates to use the financial power of the Gates Foundation to transform American education with a quote from a Charlotte high school student:
A student in the Algebra 1 class at West Charlotte High summed up the matter cogently when she said to the Gateses, in a voice that was not the least amused: “People seem to think it’s cool to be stupid. But it’s not.”

I generally believe that Hebert's column at the NY Times illuminates the hidden issues in our society. He uses his column to probe race, class, and gender and I genuinely respect his perspective and analysis of the world. However, I wonder why he ended his column on America's sagging educational system by having a teenager indict her peers. She threw her cohort under the bus.

My experience with our youth in Project Coach and beyond suggests that the issue is not one of adolescents intentionally and rationally choosing 'cool' over hitting the books or embracing a persona of 'stupid' -- but that most youth have a hazy, foggy, suspicious notion of the causal chain: working hard in school translates into learning those crucial skills and knowledge that will enable me to create choices in my life. In other words, why should I endure the daily nuisance of school if I  have not internalized the link between what I do in English class, my present life, and my future? There is a long tradition of scholarship that concludes that school failure can be tracked to a youth's inability to understand what Ogbu calls the "link between educational achievement to jobs" (See for example, Ogbu's Minority Education and Caste (1978) and Kao and Thompson's 2003 paper in the Annual Review of Sociology).

We traffic in the present moment in Project Coach. We try and create a culture where it's "cool" to be a leader. The role of coach has status in our culture and we capitalize on that  by conveying to our teens that you have to learn and practice a set of skills and capacities in order to be a high-impact and effective coach/leader. We-- the adults in the program-- may have high-minded ideas about the link between performing in Project Coach and a coach's future both personally, but also as Hebert points out "societal success," but I suspect that our teen's focus more on "I need to learn to communicate because tomorrow I'm going to be standing before 14 third-graders and I need to be effective."  Typical exhortations of youth focus on convincing them to delay  gratification and work hard for an elusive long-term goal. The notion of PC is to  provide an authentic and formidable challenge that exists in the moment-- you better learn to communicate, organize, resolve conflict, and work as a team because if you do-- you'll be a better coach today. They probably have some hazy idea that this will help them in the future, but I sense that's not as prominent a motivating force...

See Bill Gates on the role of education in making lives and society better. His work is worthy of admiration.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Coaching Academy update....

At the latest Coaching Academy of the fall season, coaches were joined by two doctors-in-training from the Brightwood Medical Center. As a long term supporter of the program, Dr Jeff Scavron arranged for the month-long visit as a way of increasing health awareness amongst both high school coaches and elementary school-aged participants. In the coming weeks, coaches will become versed in first aid, nutritional awareness, and - most importantly - learn valuable health lessons that can be passed on to their teams. Project Coach is delighted to have the services of such valuable community members, and looks forward to continued collaboration with the Brightwood Medical Center in the near future.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Can the right kinds of play teach 'self-control'

We think a lot about what it means to teach self-control and self-discipline in Project Coach. Embedded in our theory of change is that coaches must demonstrate these capacities in their work with children. In other words, a coach must regulate and manage their emotions during a game or a coach must deploy discipline in preparing for and conducting a practice. Implied in our work with our youth coaches is this idea: if they learn to exercise these crucial habits of success in our program then these qualities will be useful to them in the other domains of their life such as school, home, and community. We believe that the role of coach provides a myriad of opportunities for our teen coaches to run into situations where we must process with them what it means to self-regulate and exercise self-control.

Paul Tough, who just wrote a book on Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children's Zone & will be coming to speak in Springfield this fall, has a new and important article in the NY Times "Can the Right Kinds of Play Teach Self-Control." Incidentally, Don and I are teaching Toughs's book Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America in our course Urban Youth Development and Social Entrepreneurship. These two paragraphs provide a good synopsis of the key ideas:
Over the last few years, a new buzz phrase has emerged among scholars and scientists who study early-childhood development, a phrase that sounds more as if it belongs in the boardroom than the classroom: executive function. Originally a neuroscience term, it refers to the ability to think straight: to order your thoughts, to process information in a coherent way, to hold relevant details in your short-term memory, to avoid distractions and mental traps and focus on the task in front of you. And recently, cognitive psychologists have come to believe that executive function, and specifically the skill of self-regulation, might hold the answers to some of the most vexing questions in education today.
The ability of young children to control their emotional and cognitive impulses, it turns out, is a remarkably strong indicator of both short-term and long-term success, academic and otherwise. In some studies, self-regulation skills have been shown to predict academic achievement more reliably than I.Q. tests. The problem is that just as we’re coming to understand the importance of self-regulation skills, those skills appear to be in short supply among young American children.

The anguishing part of this article for me was reading about Angela Duckworth's research in Philadelphia. She is a psychologist at University of Pennsylvania and her research focuses on developing strategies to build self-control in children. Tough reports her findings as follows:

When I [Tough] spoke to her recently, she told me about a six-week-long experiment that she and some colleagues conducted in 2003 with 40 fifth-grade students at a school in Philadelphia.
“We did everything right,” she told me: led the kids through self-control exercises, helped them reorganize their lockers, gave them rewards for completing their homework. And at the end of the experiment, the students dutifully reported that they now had more self-control than when they started the program. But in fact, they did not: the children who had been through the intervention did no better on a variety of measures than a control group at the same school. “We looked at teacher ratings of self-control, we looked at homework completion, we looked at standardized achievement tests, we looked at G.P.A., we looked at whether they were late to class more,” Duckworth explained. “We got zero effect on everything.” Despite that failure, Duckworth says she is convinced that it is possible to boost executive function among children — she just thinks it will require a more complex and thoroughgoing program than the one that she and her colleagues employed. “It’s not impossible,” she concludes, “but it’s damn hard.”
Speaking from our work in Project Coach-- yep, it sure is. The next piece of the article focuses on a fascinating program called Tools of the Mind. It's worth a reading because it describes this program that uses play and creative, dramatic engagement as the process to learn about emotions, impulses, community, and play. I'd love to see a Tools of the Mind classroom in action.


Thursday, September 24, 2009

Project Coach Launches Its 2009 Season!

Let The Games Begin!

Amidst sunny skies and cheering children, the fall soccer season of Project Coach got underway in emphatic style this past Tuesday and Wednesday. 

  • 24 Teenage Coaches
  • 125 Elementary School players from 4 elementary schools.
  • 5 Smith College Graduate Students
  • 4 Program Coordinators

This record setting performance has been the result of months of collaboration between Smith College, Gerena Elementary, Brightwood Elementary, Chestnut Middle School, Lincoln Elementary, Springfield Parks and Recreation, and the Brightwood Medical Clinic. Critical funding was provided by the New North Campus Coalition, The Davis Foundation, Justice for Athletes, and other generous private donors.

Thank you for your continued interest in Project Coach. We look forward to a busy and action-packed fall of playing, coaching, and mentoring, as we continue to expand and grow the program.

Imagine Leadership

We view coaching as a unique role that provides the youth in our program with the opportunity to lead. When our teen coaches step before the elementary school students that they coach-- they understand intellectually and viscerally that they must lead. The role of coach provides a completely authentic apprenticeship in leadership. Look at the picture on the left: 15 elementary school students have their eyes and attention locked on coach. She is a 15-year old sophomore and she must communicate, inspire, motivate, influence, and do so within an organized structure.

We think about leadership all the time in Project Coach. Harvard Business school recently launched a campaign: Imagine Leadership. They worked with a a design team to create a very compelling video that is worth watching and thinking about for anybody involved in the work of leadership development.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Youth and Adults in Serious Work

Just reading a journal article by L.A. Camino that frames an idea that has resonance with our work in PC. The driving premise behind the article is that strong, flourishing communities thrive on collaboration. One form of collaboration involves youth and adults engaged together in community work. Importantly, the idea of youth contributions includes opportunities for youth to "to develop and exercise decision-making power in program activities and community initiatives."

Sounds good although the article leads with the idea that these types of authentic and true partnerships are rare. The lead quote to the article positions adolescents outside the center of normal community engagement.

Adolescents operate on the fringes of adult community life. Only occasionally do they regularly interact with adults other than family or kin outside of an educational or occupational setting. When they are intensively involved with adults, it is within rather strictly prescribed limits. (Schlegel & Barry, 1991, p 67)
This is an interesting empirical question: what is the character of adult interaction that the youth in PC have? How can a program like PC invite youth into more substantive, interactive, connected relationships with adults?

The End of Summer and Play

We had a substantive planning meeting today as we're about to launch the 2009 version of Project Coach next week when we begin interviewing teenagers for the coaching program. It's a busy time for schools, teachers, families, and children as summer schedules end abruptly and school begins.

A NYTimes reflection on the end of summer frames the transition in ways that has relevance to  our work in Project Coach. Writing from California, Stuart Brown writes of the realities children encounter upon returning from school:

The classes are larger, the No Child Left Behind mandates remain in place and, despite advice from the nation’s secretary of health and human services and others, recess and physical education (not to mention art and music instruction) have in many schools been cut back or eliminated. While most of our backpack-laden kids are eager to catch up with friends they haven’t seen over the summer, the general feeling is that “playtime is over.”

The schools in Springfield have also made these painful and tough cuts that result in minuscule amounts of recess and free-activity time. One of the schools we work at provides each elementary student with 45 minutes a week of physical education. As always, in our program, we like to challenge ourselves to think about these realities in comparison to what children in other contexts or schools experience: For example,  at the Smith College Campus School in Northampton, MA, the children receive physical education four days a week.

What are the implications of this? Brown synthesizes a broad range of research and writes:
Through the lens of play research, we can see that there is a direct line between play deficiencies and some frightening public health and social trends: tragic statistics for obesity, 4.5 million children diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, an increase in childhood depression and classroom behavioral problems involving violence, and an inability to interact well with peers.
Just an hour a day of vigorous play — running, chasing, games like tag or dodge ball, and even dealing with or avoiding being excluded from these activities — can provide intense skill learning. Physical activity is known to lessen the symptoms of mild attention deficit disorder, and is associated with much lower incidences of childhood obesity. Active kids are also more facile intellectually and perform better academically in the long term.
 At Project Coach, our goals is to provide opportunity for children to run, play, compete, learn skills, bond, laugh, and sweat. As our coaches tell each other: Smiles and Perspiration!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

school's can't do it alone

I was struck by an article I read the other day by James Traub*. His research makes makes indicates that if we are to seriously close the gap in academic achievement that exists between students of color, poor students, and their white and wealthier peers then we have to look at all the elements (not just schools) that help create achievement in a young person’s life. It’s a grim reality that educators/youth workers cannot be the saving grace that turns a kid’s life around but we sure as hell can try. Sociologist James Coleman consistently pointed out that: "we now expect the school to provide all the child’s human and social capital – an impossibility” (7). In the inner-city, where institutions have disintegrated, and mothers often keep children locked inside out of fear for their safety, social capital hardly exists. Schools can’t do it all. Parents can’t do it all either. We have to look to other support networks and institutions to seriously impact a young person’s life (8). Enter Project Coach…“The critical task is thus to change “the ecology of the lower-class child in order to increase the probability that he will be more successful in attaining normative skills. How do you alter that ecology?” (8). What’s the ecology of a teenager? It seems like there are three big areas in a teens life: school, after-school and home. One of the reasons I believe in Project Coach, and after-school programs in general, is that it can play a pivotal role in influencing a teenager’s life. 

*"What No School Can Do" Sunday, January 16, 2000 New York Times Magazine by James Traub

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Purpose of the PC blog

One of our goals at Project Coach is to share and document our the work that we do in our program. We do this in a variety of ways: we write about our program, we have developed mini video documentaries available on youtube, we have been featured on the tv news, we have given presentations at academic conferences, we have let other writers spend time with us to develop stories, we have developed college and graduate courses focused on the ideas that comprise PC, secured funding for graduate student fellowships so students can come to Smith and experience PC as a 'laboratory afterschool' experience, and, finally, we are a site where students, both from Smith and other colleges, can come to study the work we do and write research projects on our program.

What binds these elements together is a commitment to tell the story of our efforts at Project Coach and to track and document what we do, why we do it, and to be thoughtful about the outcomes we both achieve and strive to accomplish more successfully.

This blog is just another tool in our effort to share our work.