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!